Washington’s perennial autumn fiscal battle is almost upon us. The government needs a new budget. The debt ceiling needs to be raised. And both parties have begun posturing for the inevitable political face-off. This year, for Democrats, that means it’s time to brag.
“I think as a party we haven’t done a good enough job selling our accomplishments,” Maryland’s Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley said at a weekend gathering of state executives in Milwaukee, comparing the American people to a jury spun by a shifty defense attorney. “You can’t expect people to make better decisions if you’re not willing to tell them the truth.”
Many of his colleagues agree. The federal deficit has shrunk rapidly since 2009, thanks to a modest economic recovery, rising tax receipts, congressional spending cuts and the winding down of two wars. Democrats like O’Malley want President Obama to take credit for those trends.
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Last month Obama launched a new jobs push, featuring regular speeches that highlight how far the economy has come and all the ways the President hopes to improve the lot of the middle class. It’s part of an aggressive effort from the White House to move the political debate in Washington back to reinvestment after three years of deficit reduction.
With Republicans gearing up to call for more spending cuts — many support indefinitely extending a set of temporary cuts, known as sequestration — and fiercely opposing new tax revenue, Obama is trying to demonstrate that his way of doing things is already working.
“Our businesses have created 7.3 million new jobs over the last 41 months,” Obama said on Tuesday in Phoenix. “We now sell more products made in America to the rest of the world than ever before. Our exports are way up. We produce more renewable energy than ever before, more natural gas than anybody else. Health care costs have been growing at the slowest rate in 50 years. And our deficits are coming down at the fastest rate in 60 years.”
Illinois Governor Pat Quinn said he welcomed the President’s new message. “I think it was good of the President [two weeks ago] in Galesburg to start talking about how he’s brought down the deficit,” he tells TIME. “The American people need to know what he’s done.”
But it hasn’t always been this way. For Obama, it’s often been challenging to celebrate a sluggish recovery without appearing insensitive to those still looking for work — not to mention the danger of appearing too eager to pat himself on the back.
“But as any middle-class family will tell you, we’re not yet where we need to be, because even before the crisis hit, we had lived through a decade where a few at the top were doing better and better, but most families were working harder and harder just to get by,” Obama added on Tuesday, a segue to his plans to make homeownership more affordable.
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At the Democratic National Convention last year, Obama barely mentioned the economic recovery, leaving that work to former President Bill Clinton. Buoyed by a host of positive economic indicators three weeks before the election, Obama started touting his jobs record, but he often couched it in terms of recovery from a crippling crisis, not absolute gains.
“We were losing 800,000 jobs a month. Now we’ve added more than 5 million new jobs, more manufacturing jobs than anytime since the 1990s,” he said in Athens, Ohio. “The unemployment rate has fallen from 10% to 7.8%. Foreclosures are at their lowest in five years. Home values are on the rise. Stock market has doubled. Manufacturing is coming back. Assembly lines are putting folks back to work. That’s what we’ve been fighting for. Those are the promises I’ve kept.”
But after winning another term, Obama quickly moved away from that message as the fiscal-cliff fight consumed Washington and the legislative focus shifted to gun control and immigration. Senior Administration officials acknowledge that there were trade-offs to Obama’s efforts on both pieces of legislation, in that they distracted the White House from talking about the economy.
But now, in preparation for the next fiscal war, Obama is bragging in unambiguous terms. “We took on a housing market that was in free fall,” he said in Phoenix. “We invested in new technologies to reverse our addiction to foreign oil. We changed a tax code that had become tilted a little bit too much in favor of the wealthiest Americans at the expense of working families. We’ve saved the auto industry.”
As budget season approaches, Democrats hope that message can build support for new projects rather than new cuts. “People believe spending is out of control, so we just acknowledge spending is out of control — we don’t try to tell them the truth, and I think that is a mistake,” O’Malley said. “We need to do a better job as a party talking about the fact that the President has actually reduced the deficit.”