Tough Timing for Obama 2012 Launch

Obama 2012 Launch Complicates 2011 Problems

“I find it kind of ironic that the week we're trying to engage the president, the Democrats and the country with an honest debate about our budget, with real solutions to fix this country's problems and prevent a debt crisis, the president is launching his re-election campaign.”

-- Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., on “FOX News Sunday”

The Obama White House has been struggling to take control of the national discussion in recent weeks, U.S. intervention in the Libyan civil war, rising gas prices, fiscal gridlock on Capitol Hill, economic uncertainty and even the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan distracting from President Obama’s long-promised “hard pivot” to jobs.

The decision to launch President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign today will further complicate the efforts of a president down in the polls and facing serious challenges at home and abroad.

One of the reasons that past presidents have run their re-election efforts out of the Washington area was to facilitate communication between the administration and the political shop. Obama’s team is taking great pride on getting out of Washington and setting up in Chicago. The narrative favored by the president’s men is that the move will imbue a “beyond the beltway” spirit in the campaign and make sure that Obama is above grubby political considerations and focused on the nation’s business, not his campaign.

But today’s announcement – done with a blast email from Obama and an online video of supporters talking about their gathering excitement – shows how campaigns can make things much harder for administrations.

The primary political problem for Obama these days is that too many voters perceive him as a weak leader. His decision to stay out of the fight on spending and entitlements as well as the confusing U.S. mandate in the Libyan war have reinforced a notion that Obama’s above-the-fray approach may be self-interested.

Congressional Democrats routinely complain in private, and increasingly in public, that the president isn’t leading their team but instead playing his own game. By not taking clear positions on spending or whether to depose Muammar al-Qaddafi, Obama preserves his options, but makes it harder on those trying to follow him.

By rolling out his campaign today – expected to be a $1 billion juggernaut lavishly funded by Obama’s corporate patrons in Wall Street, technology and green energy firms – Obama reinforces the notion that his primary considerations are for his own re-election. With Libya a bewildering scene, the Middle East in turmoil and the government nearing shutdown, it seems a strange time to say “Yes, we can.”

Not that there’s ever a good time for a sitting president to make this nod to political reality, but some times are better than others. When George W. Bush made his move in May 2003, the Iraq war was thought to be winding down and Congress was on the verge of a major tax cut. Remember that the “Mission Accomplished” banner only looked really bad in hindsight. In May 2003, Bush was, literally, flying high.

For Obama to act when there is only one top-tier Republican candidate having declared his candidacy (former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty) seems like an unforced error. Obama could have waited until some of the huge questions currently looming over his presidency had been resolved a bit.

To try to minimize the perception of political grubbing, the Obama team is framing the launch as a grassroots effort in which the individuals politically transformed by the 2008 campaign will summon the 2012 campaign into being through their enthusiasm.

In the kickoff video we meet a middle-aged white man from North Carolina, a Hispanic mom from Nevada, an alternative-looking white woman from Colorado, a preppy college student and a black woman from Michigan who all talk about their anticipation for a return to 2008 excitement. But they also discuss the need for the Obama enthusiasts to generate more of their own tingles this time because the president “has a job to do” and can’t spend as much time inspiring them.

In the 1966 TV special “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown,” Linus Van Pelt tells the rest of the gang that the reason they have never seen the Great Pumpkin – a Halloween version of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny – is that they lack faith. If they want the Great Pumpkin to appear, they must truly believe.

This Great Pumpkin approach to the 2012 Obama kickoff may help generate excitement or at least explain to 2008 enthusiasts why the energy is so different this time around, but it will not likely discourage Republicans and Democrats alike who claim that Obama was not serious when he said that he would rather be “a really good one-term president” than get re-elected as an “mediocre president.”

At a time when Obama needs Democrats and Republicans to take political risks to solve serious problems, an early and aggressive re-election bid will do little to encourage teamwork with the White House.

Short-Term and Long-Term Spending Debates Collide

“The Republican leadership in the House has to make a decision whether they're going to do the right thing for the country or do the right thing for the Tea Party.”

-- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on “Face the Nation”

House Republicans and Senate Democrats are still stuck on the details of a plan to trim 2 percent from a projected $1.65 trillion deficit for the current federal fiscal year.

The main challenge is for Democrats to find a way to cover the cuts – half of a House-passed measure that would reduce the deficit by $61 billion – in a way that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can cell to his caucus.

The other challenge is to get Republicans in the House to accept the elimination of some of their preferred cuts, like the elimination of a subsidy for Planned Parenthood, the nation’s leading abortion provider.

So, while sources on both sides of the aisle tell Power Play that the number has been set, it seems increasingly likely that there will be at least a brief shutdown when the current federal funding bill expires Friday.

The House requires a bill to be on offer for three days before a vote, so that means legislation would have to get shaped up and passed by the narrowly divided Senate by Wednesday.

But the debate in the House is increasingly shifting to the long term.

Conservative House members who had complained about what they saw as an inadequate ardor for cuts in the GOP leadership are enthusing over Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s plan to slash $4 trillion from the national debt over the next decade with fundamental changes for Medicare, the entitlement program for senior citizens, and Medicaid, the welfare program for poor people.

Ryan’s pitch, due out Tuesday as part of his proposed 2012 budget, may be short of what some Tea Party members are looking for, but it is triple what President Obama proposed and represents that kind of overhaul that many of the fiscally focused caucus want to see.

Ryan’s plan raises the overall stakes in the current battle over a potential government shutdown but makes the fight over 2 percent of this year’s deficit less important. Also looming is President Obama’s demand for an increase in the government’s $14.3 trillion borrowing limit, due to be reached sometime after April 15.

While some House freshmen are still reviewing Ryan’s proposal, one told Power Play: “This is the real discussion we need to be having. We should be dealing with the future, not just cleaning up the Democrats’ mess from 2010.”

Ryan’s proposal will also increase the pressure on Reid to allow moderate members of his own caucus to move forward with their plans to propose far-reaching fiscal fixes.

While House Republican leaders have emphasized the need to keep the three issues separate – current spending, future budgets and the Obama request for a higher debt limit – the three are colliding anyway.

While the elevated stakes may increase the chances of a serious shutdown (Friday’s is shaping up as a few days of partial closure while details are ironed out), it also increases the chances of major moves on the nation’s biggest fiscal problems.