Republicans are headed for a severe setback if their budget confrontation with President Obama results in the government going over the fiscal cliff on January 1.
History shows that the president's influence and stature would tend to grow during such a crisis, and that congressional leaders couldn't compete with the chief executive's bully pulpit. The best example comes from 1995-1996 when Democratic President Bill Clinton and his allies won an extended confrontation with congressional conservatives over the budget. Then as now, the Democrats wanted to minimize what they considered draconian spending cuts, while the GOP sought to hold the line on taxes and slash many social programs. Clinton crushed the GOP in the court of public opinion.
The same dynamic is occurring today.
The president is increasingly using the bully pulpit to drown out the arguments of his opposition. In a visit to the Detroit area this week, Obama told enthusiastic auto workers that he will push harder than ever to raise taxes on the rich and continue tax cuts for the middle class, two of his main campaign themes in his successful bid for re-election. Meanwhile, Republican leaders such as House Speaker John Boehner argue that Obama's tax hikes would hurt the economy and that the president doesn't want to cut spending enough, but these GOP points are getting much less media attention than the president's arguments.
This is almost always what happens when a president goes head to head with members of Congress. During Clinton's 1995-1996 battle with a Republican House led by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and a GOP Senate under Majority Leader Bob Dole, the government was forced to shut down twice during that period after the GOP tried to ram through a balanced budget plan that Clinton labeled too harsh because it cut entitlements and social programs so deeply. Clinton's rhetoric was similar to Obama's today. Clinton said the Republicans were trying "to force us to accept extreme budget measures that would violate our basic values as a nation and undermine the long-term welfare of the American people."
Clinton came across as principled but willing to compromise while the Republicans lost control of their message and seemed extreme and inflexible. On the first day of the shutdown, a Gallup poll found that 49 percent of voters blamed Republicans and only 26 percent blamed Clinton.
The dynamic is remarkably similar today. Forty-seven percent of Americans say the Republicans would be to blame if a budget deal falls through, and 36 percent would blame Obama, according to the latest Marist poll.
In 1995, it hurt the GOP when Gingrich himself became an issue, coming across as immature and vindictive. This was illustrated in the "crybaby" incident, when he petulantly complained that Clinton ignored him on Air Force One as they returned from a funeral for Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin (photos released by the White House showed otherwise), and when Gingrich threatened to delay a budget resolution as payback because he had to exit the plane at the rear rather than using the front stairs.
It's unlikely that the unassuming Boehner would make such mistakes. But every gaffe and error would be magnified during a budget crisis, and Obama has shown himself to be more sure-footed than his adversaries.
"The stakes are much higher than they were at the time of the government shutdown [in 1995]," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "This isn't just about the ability of the government to function for a few days or a few weeks. This is about the condition of the American economy."
Some economists warn that failure to avoid the automatic tax hikes and spending cuts scheduled to take effect January 1 will cause another recession. Obama and congressional leaders are trying to find a way to avoid that fiscal cliff, with little apparent progress so far.
Garin says Obama has two advantages: He has "a louder and better megaphone than the Republicans do," and during a time of crisis, "the president is singularly the voice of the nation rather than a parochial interest."
Of course it helps Obama that the country seems to agree with him on the tax issue. A new Bloomberg poll finds that 65 percent of Americans believe Obama's re-election victory gave him a mandate to increase taxes on the rich. And, in another ominous sign for the GOP, Obama's favorability is on the rise.
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.