Obama’s call to go big — literally — on the debt talks is in keeping with a broader political strategy that he has employed almost since his first day as a presidential candidate: the idea that his election heralded a fundamental break with the half-measure politics of the past.
Being big when it comes to the problems facing the country is absolutely fundamental to the Obama brand — what do “hope” and “change” mean if not the ability to believe things can and will be fundamentally different and better? — and why he and his senior political team are making a calculated gamble that pushing for a grand bargain (or something close to it) on the debt is the best way to strengthen his political prospects heading into 2012.
The idea of bigness as it relates to solving political and policy problems runs through virtually every major speech Obama has given since emerging on the political landacape seven years ago.
“Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope?,” Obama asked during his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Later in that address, he promised that “this country will reclaim its promise, and out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come.”
As Obama the senator turned into Obama the presidential candidate, his bet on bigness became clearer and clearer.
“What’s stopped us [from solving problems in the past] is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics — the ease with which we’re distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems,” Obama said during his February 2007 presidential announcement.
That single sentence summed up his entire primary campaign against then Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) in which Obama ran as much against the idea of Clintonism — small bore politics to piece together a winning coalition — as he did against the New York Senator herself.
And, by the time he took the stage in Denver, Colorado to accept his party’s presidential nomination, Obama’s was fully embracing the idea of going big or going home — and using it as a cudgel against his Republican opponents too.
“America, now is not the time for small plans,” he declared in that speech, deriding his Republican opponents for trying to make “a big election about small things.”
The bumps in the first two years of Obama’s presidency came, largely, when he went small.
The best example is the protracted fight over health care reform. Obama’s initial instinct — to let the bill be crafted and hashed out by Democratic leaders in Congress — was a move toward bigness, staying out of the sausage-making that voters tend to view unfavorably.
But when that process broke down, Obama found himself waist-deep in a process argument in which he, inevitably, was dragged down into a debate over minute details. It was the essence of smallness in government and likely cost Obama Democratic control of the House in the 2010 election.
Recoiling from the 2010 results, Obama went big again — cutting a compromise deal in early April to keep the government operating rather than forcing a shutdown; “today, Americans of different beliefs came together,” Obama said at the time. “We protected the investments we need to win the future.”
Obama’s bet on bigness will face its toughest test yet over the weeks between now and the Aug. 2 deadline for the U.S. to raise the current $14.3 trillion debt ceiling.
The Obama’s team belief appears to be that he is at his best when regarded as the adult in the room — hence the comparisons of Republican congressional leaders to his tween-age daughters in a confrontational press conference last week.
While the image of Obama as compromiser-in-chief doesn’t sit well with many liberals, it’s the independents and people in the middle of the political spectrum that the president’s political aides have their eye on in 2012.
And those voters react very positively to the image of Obama as the one person in Washington willing to rise above partisan concerns and do what’s right for the country.
Of course, the downside of Obama urging Congress to go big on a debt deal is that if one doesn’t happen, it undermines his brand as someone uniquely positioned to bring fundamental change to Washington .
The showdown over the debt ceiling — and broader budget priorities — will almost certainly be the last major legislative showdown between Obama and Congressional Republicans before the 2012 presidential campaign drowns out the possibility of doing anything large-scale from a policy perspective before next November.
Obama’s bigness bet has paid off it the past. Will it this time?
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