The second part of the president’s strategy is to bait the Republicans into shutting down the government. For years now, Obama and the Democrats have salivated at the prospect of a government shutdown, assuming the outcome would be the same as in 1995: The Republicans would lose in the court of public opinion and fold, strengthening the president’s position and improving his approval rating. But the Republicans have done an excellent job at preventing that from happening. The process has been messy, conservatives have screamed, taxes have been raised, and defense has been cut dangerously, but at each point Congress has found a way to keep the government running and American creditors paid. This is an achievement—substantively, of course, but also politically. The White House, the Democrats, and the press want nothing more than to prove to the American public and the world that the Republican Party is a group of childish wing nuts. Denying them the pleasure has saved the GOP a considerable amount of heartburn.
What the president is doing in this series of speeches on “the economy” is softening the ground for the battle over budgets and the debt ceiling that will take place in September. Beginning this fight earlier than expected allows him freely to define the Republican position in his typical, ludicrous way: The GOP, not having any ideas, is willing to shut down the government and deny you Social Security out of loyalty to their millionaire corporate backers. Obama was going to make this case anyway, but starting the campaign now provides a way to escape the scandals and capture free summer media. The economy is a pretext.
Republicans have been far too complacent in response to Obama’s challenge.