Compromise: A Dirty Word No More. Or How Obama is Winning the Messaging War on the Budget

Boehner-cryingThere are tons of complaints - some of it legitimate - about the Obama administration's messaging apparatus. But at least in one instance if you want to win a messaging battle, look at what President Obama is doing. Not because President Obama is some sort of a miracle worker, but because what he's doing is working. Compromise, a dirty word to both ideological extremes, has suddenly become buzzword among voters - and guess what? Voters want policy makers to compromise. MSNBC reports on a new AP poll that finds Congress' disapproval rating at a sky-high 87%, and their approval rating down to 12% - i.e. it's down to paid staff and family members and not even all of them at that - also finds this from voter interviews:
"I guess I long for the day back in the '70s and '80s when we could disagree but we could get a compromise worked out," said Republican Scott MacGregor, 45, a Windsor, Conn., police detective. "I don't think there's any compromise anymore." [...]

"They're so committed to their personal ways, and party's way, that they are having a hard time finding a middle road," Republican Frank Chase, 77, a military retiree from Hopkinton, Mass., said of both sides.
When Republican voters are openly telling pollsters that policy makers in Washington need to get off their ideological line-drawing-in-the-sand and start compromising, you know that the message in favor of compromise and against a stagnant, deadlocked, dysfunctional government is winning. It's winning, remarkably, despite 24-hour "news" channels competing on "format purity" and ideological Internet media on both sides attempting to make 'compromise' a four letter word.

More importantly, the ideological houses of cards are being broken down as Americans start to pay attention to governing rather than just politicking. President Obama, throughout the debt limit debate (and before that the tax-cut and unemployement-benefits deal) constantly sought to do exactly that. Americans may have voted for divided government, but they did not vote for a dysfunctional one, he kept reminding us. He challenged members of his own party and the Republicans to step away from ideological line drawing and embrace compromise instead.

If the goal for progressives is to win as much tax revenue as possible, this poll reveals that the President's framing has succeeded at moving the country exactly in that direction.

Usually, when Congressional approval is down, political scientists put a big caveat on it: people love to hate Congress as an institution, but most people still like their own member of Congress. That's how in an institution generally unloved by Americans, the vast majority of members still win re-election even in "wave" election years. Well, that institutional ridicule might actually turn out to be headaches for incumbents now:
The poll finds more people are down on their own member of Congress, not just the institution, an unusual finding in surveys and one bound to make incumbents particularly nervous. [...]

Among [independent voters], 65 percent say they want their own House representative tossed out in 2012, compared with 53 percent of respondents generally.
A majority of Americans, and almost two-thirds of independents want their own members of Congress to be given the boot. Combine this with the finding in the poll that the Tea Party has declined to a 25% approval rating less than a year after their ranks swelled to a Republican majority in the House, and you can get an idea about which members of Congress the independents are aiming their votes against: Republicans.

Not only have people moved to favor compromise over gridlock and governing over ideological head-butting, they have also significantly warmed to the idea of tax revenue increases as not just a significant part - people were always in favor of a balanced approach - but as the focal point.
Asked which should be the main focus of lawmakers trying to solve that problem, raising taxes or cutting government services, 53 percent of respondents said cutting services and 34 percent said increasing taxes. That's a shift toward raising taxes since March, when 29 percent said increasing taxes and 62 percent said cutting services.
That is a total 14 point swing in favor of not just raising taxes but in favor of making tax increases (on the wealthy) the focus of deficit reduction. Ideologues on the Left are often lamenting the president for offering what they consider too much cuts, and not trying to convince Americans enough that tax increases are needed; will they acknowledge the President's success in actually convincing Americans? And that shift comes from both Democrats, but even more importantly, independent voters:
Since then, more Democrats and independents have shifted toward taxes as a means of balancing the budget, while Republican views on the question have not moved, according to the poll. Half of Democrats polled said raising taxes should be the focus over cutting services, up 10 percentage points from March. Independents showed a clear preference for cutting services over raising taxes in March, 64 percent to 28 percent. Now, only 42 percent of independents say focus on cutting services while 37 percent say increase taxes, according to the poll.
In other words, the gap went from from a whopping two-to-one independent preference to make cuts the focal point in March to now being statistically evenly split. What's more, nearly 6 in 10 Americans now take it for granted that taxes will have to be raised in order to bring us back to fiscal health. Argue, if you must, that the President did not do enough (or anything) to persuade the American people to bring them to the side of raising revenue, but the numbers tell a different story.

As Congress returns to DC after their long vacation (ugh), and the supercommittee begins its work, these will be the realities looming on them - especially Republicans:
  • First, no one likes you. No, we don't mean the place you work for, we mean you, Mr. (Republican) Congresscritter. The same people who put you in office (independents) are ready to throw your behind out if you don't get your act together.
  • Second, not only do Americans overwhelmingly favor a balanced approach, more and more Americans are moving towards raising taxes as the focal solution to fiscal balance.
  • Third, voters are pissed off at your attitude at the debt limit debate, they want compromise, and they want to see government working (a working government, I might point out, is in and of itself anathema to the Tea Party conservatives).
So whether these members are thinking of their own political futures, the general attitude of the country, or what the American people really want, they cannot avoid serious tax revenue increases. The only possible way they could be looking to repeat the debt limit fight is if they have a political death wish. President Obama famously told Eric Cantor just on this subject that he would take his case to the American people. And he did. And the American people flooded Congress' phone lines, fax machines and email inboxes, and crashed Congress' servers. And now they are telling Congress - and Republicans - that should they refuse to compromise, there will be consequences - the only kind of consequences the Republicans understand: the electoral kind.

Now, as I said at the beginning, I take the point that many sincere liberals make that the Obama administration  has a problem with messaging. They may well have a point that the administration is often to busy doing things to actually tout what they have been doing. But let's remember something - that's why we're out here. The President can't do everything. We have to have some accountability ourselves for what we are doing to push the message out of the progressive accomplishments of this administration.

Also, while there can be good criticism about the administration on that front, no one should doubt that President Obama has an uncanny ability to persuade the American people to his side about how government should be run. Sure, the Republicans are making this job easier by going completely over to the crazy side, but one cannot objectively look at this and not marvel at the President's ability to get his message about governing through a nearly unbeatable media narrative.

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