Republicans in Congress, who paid a dear price in the last two elections for their fealty to George W. Bush, are well on their way to proving—again—just how much easier it is to be the minority party.
Exhibiting a level of public and private partisan loyalty glaringly absent in the dying days of their majority, they’ve spent the first few weeks of Barack Obama’s presidency loudly and persistently raising a series of trivial—but—digestible objections to the economic stimulus package now stuck in the Senate. Their message is easy to understand—the price tag is obscene!—and they’ve hyped a series of proposed expenditures, like a since-dropped provision that would have used Medicaid money for contraceptive programs, to stoke public outrage and to portray bill as little more than a giant tray of pork.
Never mind that that the "pork" they’ve itemized accounts for a statistically insignificant portion of the proposed spending and that they oversaw a veritable orgy of spending in their majority years (during which time the national debt swelled to nearly $10 trillion): People are buying it. An eye-opening Rasmussen poll released on Wednesday found that a plurality of Americans—by a 43 to 37 percent spread—now oppose the stimulus package.
This raises two previously improbable questions: Is it actually possible for Republicans to defeat the stimulus package (or at least force alterations that would render it unrecognizable)? And even if he does get his way in the end, will Obama actually suffer for it in the court of public opinion?
Previously, it was taken as a given that an Obama-backed stimulus plan would work its way through Congress, even without measurable Republican support. Obama’s popularity, the dire state of the economy, and overwhelming Democratic majorities had, it seemed, congealed into an unstoppable force. Even when every House Republican voted against that chamber’s version of the stimulus plan last week, it didn’t matter: Just 11 Democrats defected and the measure easily went through, 244-188.
In the Senate, the road seemed similarly clear. If they can keep their caucus together, Democrats need just two Republican votes on any measure to kill a Republican filibuster. And the chamber includes a number of potentially pliable moderate Republicans, like Maine’s Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. Surely, they’d be persuaded to do the right thing at the end of the day. Then the Senate version could be reconciled with the House version and compromise package could be rushed to the Oval Office for the presidential signature.
But it hasn’t quite worked that way. On Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that Senate Democrats are still short of their magic 60 votes. Republicans are digging their heels in, demanding reductions in spending. Collins was summoned to the White House on Wednesday to meet with Obama. A compromise still seems likely, given how few Republicans it will take for Democrats to hit their number. But significant reductions in spending—senators have been considering a package with $100 billion more in spending than the House version, which was priced at $819 billion—will be necessary.
The wild card, though, is the public’s reaction. Republicans in the House and the Senate were already presenting a unified front before Wednesday’s polling news, back when most of the public seemed to be behind the bill. Now, they may feel emboldened to resist with more intensity. And the bill still has a long way to go: It has to clear the Senate, go through conference committee, and then pass both chambers again. That’s a lot of time for Republicans to rally even more opposition among the general public—opposition that could translate into more Democratic defections in Congress.
Still, the most likely outcome is a compromise in the Senate that pares back spending, followed by a speedy passage of a compromise bill in both chambers. Even accounting for some more defections in the House, Democrats probably have too much of a numbers advantage. But if public opposition to the stimulus mounts in that time, forcing such an unpopular bill through could threaten Obama’s popularity. Something like this happened to Bill Clinton in 1993, when he won party-line votes in the House and Senate for what Republicans demagogued as "the largest tax increase in American history."
But here might be an opportunity for Obama. Unlike Clinton, he has entered office with wide and deep popularity and respect. And there remains universal consensus among voters that the country is facing a serious economic crisis. There is an obvious opening here for Obama to harness the moral authority he now enjoys and to use his public platform to connect the stimulus package to voters’ fears about the economy.
The last president to power into office with the momentum Obama now enjoys showed how this is done. As a critical vote on his first budget was nearing in 1981, Ronald Reagan faced fierce opposition from House Democratic leaders, who enjoyed a 244-191 majority. Public support for Reagan’s plan was slipping, too, so he scheduled a prime-time address to appeal directly to Americans. The country rallied around Reagan and momentum against the budget was killed on the spot; it cleared the house on a 253-176 vote. When his tax cuts came up for a vote a few months later, Reagan resorted to the same trick—and prevailed again.
Obama has the same unique potential to shape public opinion. Late on Wednesday, the White House did announce that Obama will deliver an address to Congress—not a State of the Union speech—on Feb. 24. This is a good start, but Obama would be well advised to do more. For instance, he has yet to address the nation in prime time from the Oval Office. It may not bring Republicans in Congress around, but it will rally the country—and ensure that the new president’s poll numbers don’t collapse over a stimulus bill that has been effectively demagogued by his partisan opponents.