"The Presidency" column appears in U.S. News Weekly.
President Obama and his supporters argue that the November election gave him a mandate to raise taxes on the rich and take a "balanced" approach to cutting social programs. They have a point. Obama won re-election with a majority of the vote, and he can justifiably say that he does have national backing for these economic priorities, which he talked about day in and day out on the campaign trail.
But the Republicans have a powerful argument of their own. They say most of their members in the House of Representatives won re-election with bigger majorities than Obama had (though House Democrats won more votes overall than House Republicans), and those legislators campaigned against tax increases and in favor of more severe spending cuts. They also have a point.
So what Washington faces is a showdown of clashing mandates, with no resolution in sight.
GOP leaders took some heat this week when a new poll by the Washington Post and the Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of Americans surveyed would blame congressional Republicans if current budget talks fail. Three weeks ago, the number was about the same, which suggests that nothing has happened in the intervening time, despite all the political maneuvering, to alter public perceptions that the GOP has been obstructing the negotiations.
But Republicans say this doesn't account for the fact that in most House Republican districts, voters wanted their representatives to hold the line against Obama, no matter what the national polls say. GOP legislators in these districts are more worried about conservative challengers in nominating primaries, such as those from the tea party, than general-election opponents from the left. As a result, they are likely to take a tough conservative position in the current budget debate no matter how much Obama and the Democrats rail against them.
"We just elected a Republican House — 219 members of the House won by bigger margins than Obama won by," says conservative strategist Grover Norquist. "They ran against raising taxes and for the [Rep. Paul] Ryan plan, which is actually $6 trillion in spending restraint over the next decade, and [for] tax reform rather than tax increases." Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, has persuaded many GOP legislators over the years to pledge never to raise taxes as an article of conservative faith.
Norquist told CNN that Obama's win did not give the president "the power to impose anything he wants," even though many Democrats and media pundits have been arguing that Obama has the upper hand because his national mandate trumps the district-by-district conservative mandate. But that's not how House Republicans see it. In their own little universes, defined by the borders of their districts, the local mandate is the most important one. If they didn't feel that way, they argue, they would be voted out of office by their constituents.
House Republican leaders released their latest plan this week, which would not raise tax rates but would increase revenue from tax collections by $800 billion over 10 years through closing loopholes and changing the tax code. The White House rejected the offer, arguing that it would go too easy on the rich and wouldn't go far enough to reduce the deficit. House GOP leaders in turn said it was now up to the White House to come up with a better plan that could actually pass Congress.
On Wednesday, Obama told the Business Roundtable, a group of corporate leaders, that the only way to hit the revenue targets he seeks to reduce the deficit, and help the middle class, is to extend tax cuts for middle-class people enacted under George W. Bush and let them expire for the top 2 percent of taxpayers. He said House Republicans are being intransigent by refusing to increase rates on the rich. "We're not insisting on [higher] rates just out of spite…but rather because we need to raise a certain amount of revenue, he said.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters, "The fact of the matter is, the president has an absolute principle that he's not going to abandon, which is that rates are going up on top earners." Obama is scheduled to make his case again in a campaign-style appearance in the Detroit area Monday.
All this explains why it has been so difficult to find compromise on the budget issue, and why it will be so tough to avoid the "fiscal cliff" of draconian spending cuts and tax hikes scheduled to take effect automatically on January 1. The clashing mandates won't go away.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Facebook and Twitter.