President Obama the problem-solver is turning into President Obama the warrior. It just might save him.
Politics is the enemy of problem-solving. That's common knowledge. Why can't the country deal with the national debt? Politics. Why can't we do something about climate change? Politics.
We see more evidence of it every day. Why is the country on the brink of another government shutdown? Politics. Why can't we get disaster relief to people who desperately need it? Politics. President Obama told a rally this month in Richmond that the American Jobs Act could pass if Republicans "set politics aside for a moment to deal with America's problems."
Set politics aside? Not on your life. House Speaker John Boehner made that clear when he said, "Tax increases... are off the table." Obama's response a few days later: "I will not support -- I will not support -- any plan that puts all the burden for closing our deficit on ordinary Americans." In other words, "Go ahead -- make my day."
President Obama is by nature a problem-solver. That hasn't changed. The president's two big speeches this month were aimed at solving the nation's two big problems -- jobs and debt. He insists on a "balanced" solution that cuts government spending ("but not... with spending cuts that would hamper growth") and also raises taxes on the wealthy ("We can't just cut our way out of this hole").
Problem-solving is cool, rational, and technocratic. It sees issues as problems to be solved, not fundamental conflicts of interests and values. But politics is not just about problem-solving. Politics is also about causes and values that stir the blood: "us" versus "them."
Republicans have become totally committed to that ideological style of politics. Problem-solving is secondary. Every issue is a battle between "us" and "them."
The minute President Obama called for higher taxes on the wealthy, Republicans denounced him for "class warfare." A spokesman for the conservative American Crossroads political action committee told Politico, "The president is explicitly driving a wedge between Americans. That's not leadership, that's borderline demagoguery."
The president's response? "That's not class warfare. I'm not attacking anybody. It's simple math." What could be more bloodless than math? Math is problem-solving.
It will probably be impossible for President Obama to make deals with Republicans to pass his jobs plan or his debt-reduction plan. That's fine with many Democrats, who believe that every time Obama makes a deal with Republicans, he gets rolled.
The jobs problem and the debt problem are not likely to be solved in the next year. Which means that any attempt by President Obama to run for re-election as a problem-solver is likely to fail. So what can he do?
He can do what he did in 2008: stir the blood. Run as the passionate leader of a cause. In 2008, it was "hope" and "change." This time, it's "fairness."
President Obama mentioned "fairness" 11 times when he introduced his debt reduction plan: "Anyone who has signed some pledge to protect every single tax loophole so long as they live, they should be called out. They should have to defend that unfairness."
"Fairness" gets Democrats' juices flowing. But it doesn't always work.
In 1984, it was a flop for Walter Mondale -- who also promised to raise taxes. Mondale's error was timing. The "fairness" theme paid off for Democrats in the 1982 midterm. That year, unemployment peaked at 10.8%. When the economy is bad, middle-class people are receptive to the argument that there's something wrong with the system. They say, "People like me are hard-working and have the right values and we still can't make it. It isn't fair."
In 1984, however, it was "morning in America." When the economy is good, middle-class Americans say, "I'm doing O.K. and so are people like me. If there are some people who still can't make it, it must be their own fault." The fairness issue falls flat.
Right now, it's not "morning in America." It looks a lot more like 1982 than 1984. "When everybody went up, it was a lot harder to make [the fairness] argument," Sen. Charles Schumer told the Washington Post. Now another recession seems imminent. "I think the time is ripe again," Schumer said. "I think the president sensed that."
President Obama can run for re-election on two messages. Why are our problems not solved? Because Republicans put politics first. They refused to compromise. The other is "my values are better than their values." Fairness trumps smaller government. After all, solid majorities of Americans support raising taxes on the wealthy.
What will the Obama campaign sound like? Like President Obama in Cincinnati last week: "I'm a warrior for the middle class! I'm happy to fight for the middle class! I'm happy to fight for working people, because the only warfare I've seen is the battle against the middle class over the last 10 or 15 years!"
Fighting isn't problem-solving. It's politics. Sometimes good politics.