Obama Sticks to the High Ground in Addressing a Downgraded Nation

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Larry Downing / Reuters

The emotional highpoint of the disastrous debt-limit negotiations last month may have come in the Oval Office, after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor offered a proposal that left the President displeased. “Eric, don’t call my bluff,” Obama said, according to Cantor. “I’m going to take this to the American people.”

On Monday, with the country’s credit rating downgraded in the aftermath of those same negotiations, Obama stepped forward to take his case to the American people. But as is Obama’s style, he didn’t single out any Republicans for the recent problems, or challenge anyone directly. Rather, he laid out his plan, called for hard work in Washington, and then tried to buck up the country. “No matter what some agency may say,” Obama announced, “we’ve always been and always will be a triple-A country.”

To the extent that Obama tried to lay any blame for the downgrade, it came in the form of the first-person plural. “We knew from the outset that a prolonged debate over the debt ceiling, a debate where the threat of default was used as a bargaining chip, could do enormous damage to our economy and the world’s,” he said, in an oblique reference to the Republican strategy of holding the debt limit hostage to a deficit reduction agreement.

This soft, high altitude tone is a marked contrast from the tone struck by Obama’s own re-election campaign strategist, David Axelrod, who coined the term “Tea Party downgrade” in an appearance on CBS’s Face The Nation on Sunday. It also differs markedly from the tone Speaker John Boehner struck on Friday, when the downgrade was announced. “It is my hope this wake-up call will convince Washington Democrats that they can no longer afford to tinker around the edges of our long-term debt problem,” Boehner said. This was echoed more forcefully by the Republican National Committee, with a press release trumpeting the “Obama downgrade.”

But Obama views his role as President differently. As he takes his case to the American people, he is attempting to retain his privileged position above the mud pit of Washington politics. A CBS New/New York Times poll conducted after the debt-limit deal suggests he is having some success. The country remained evenly divided—46% to 47%–on the question of whether they approved or disapproved Obama’s handling of the debt-limit negotiations. But Obama’s approval ratings remain much higher than anyone else in the debate, with 48% approving of his job performance, compared with 30% approval for Boehner. On the question of who Americans trust to make the right decision on the economy, Obama beats Republicans in Congress by a margin of 47% to 33%.

The challenge for Obama is finding a way to maintain this relative good will while still accomplishing something in the coming months. On Monday, he gave more details on his game plan: He said he would release a plan in a matter of weeks with a new proposal for solving the long term deficit issues, a plan that is certain to include raising tax rates on the highest earners. He said a long term agreement would create “more room to implement proposals that can get the economy to grow faster.” He also said that Congress should approve those proposals, including an extension of unemployment benefits, a payroll tax cut extension, and an infrastructure bank, before any final deal on the deficit is hammered out.

Republican leaders have already rejected out of hand any increase in tax rates as part of the final deficit deal, and they have scoffed at the idea of more deficit spending for economic stimulus. This suggests that Obama must prepare for several more months of taking his case to the American people, a task that will test his reticence to directly call out his opponents.

In the meantime, the Obama strategy is still to appeal to the country’s better angels. “What sets us apart is that we’ve always not just had the capacity but also the will to act, the determination to shape our future, the willingness in our democracy to work out our differences in a sensible way, and to move forward not just for this generation but for the next generation,” he said.

“And we’re going to need to summon that spirit today.”