After the last two years, it’s hard to imagine Obama’s presidency consumed by anything other than exhausting fights over safety net spending and taxes.
Notwithstanding his recent successes, those fights were responsible for the lowest moments in his first term. And so after a decisive re-election, Obama is trying to flip the script-which is why his inaugural address seemed so incongruous.
Obama treated as settled long-standing disagreements over programs like Medicare, and alluded only once to the idea that federal deficits are too high. Instead, he tried to change the focus to a new agenda that includes gun control, equal rights, and immigration reform - issues unlike the budget that fall right in the sweet spot of a president re-elected by a coalition of women, minorities, and young and gay voters.
Unsurprisingly, Republicans are trying to keep the script right where it is, which suggests Congress and the White House are bracing themselves for a tug of war over the national agenda.
“He’s set a high bar for himself,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) said on Monday, referring to Obama’s oratorical gifts. “I think this one could have set out a more achievable agenda.”
“Instead of saying as he did there’s no reason for us to have to trade off future generations for current retirees, we have to make tough decisions,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) told reporters in the Capitol rotunda after the inaugural luncheon. “And a president can provide both leadership and cover for his own party to make the right decisions.
Portman, like other Republican elected officials, wants to keep Congress focused like a laser on budget issues — cutting entitlement spending, in particular.
“None of us want to see us go over the debt limit but all of us should want to see some spending reform in order to deal with the underlying problem,” Portman added. “We shouldn’t squander the opportunity to focus Americans on this issue of spending.”
At the House Republicans’ retreat last week, members devoted almost no time forging consensus on issues unrelated to spending, and instead developed a strategy for addressing the debt limit, federal appropriations, and the sequester.
And that’s where their focus remains.
“I think the prospects of passage are pretty good. I think just about all the Republicans will vote for it,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, after the inauguration ceremony. “I suspect that just about everyone - not everyone but just about everyone will be on board.”
Sen. John Thune’s (R-SD) mind is in the same place. “[We] can’t solve the deficit without doing something on reforming Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. … I think [Democrats are] deluded if they believe that simply by doing something on tax reform you can raise a whole bunch of new revenue - it’s not going to solve the problem. All we’re saying is we want some spending reductions and long-term fiscal discipline for the country.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.