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August 16, 2012 11:52 AM How Obama Created the Greatest Threat to His Presidency

By Ezra Klein

Here’s the weird thing about Paul Ryan being named to the Republican presidential ticket: It’s all part of Barack Obama’s campaign plan — a plan that’s working better than his strategists could have hoped. It could also backfire more disastrously than they have ever imagined.

It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time, not long ago, when Ryan was no better known than Democrat John Spratt of South Carolina, his predecessor as chairman of the House Budget Committee. And the Republican Party’s leadership was eager to keep it that way.

In 2008, Ryan released the first version of his budget, the “Roadmap for America’s Future.” So while Obama and the Democrats in 2009 were pushing big plans to stimulate the economy and reshape the health-care system, Republicans had a big plan of their own all ready to go.

But as Ryan Lizza recounted in the New Yorker, Republican leaders “wanted nothing to do with his Roadmap.” Their theory was that Obama’s agenda was rapidly becoming unpopular, and the smart strategy was to attack, attack, attack. The dumbest thing they could do would be to release a grand bit of, shall we say, “right-wing social engineering” that promised to privatize Social Security, voucherize Medicare and block grant Medicaid while eliminating the capital gains tax, ending the tax deductibility of employer-based health insurance — and more.

Free Publicity

The Obama team made the same strategic assessment, which is why, as Obama’s poll numbers dropped, they did everything in their power to publicize Ryan and his budget. In January 2010, Obama spoke at a House Republican retreat in Baltimore, where he couldn’t stop talking up that Paul Ryan guy.

“You study this stuff and take it pretty seriously,” he said to Ryan. “I think Paul, for example, head of the Budget Committee, has looked at the budget and has made a serious proposal,” he said to Representative Jeb Hensarling. He even gave Ryan personal compliments. “The problem we have sometimes is a media that responds only to slash-and-burn-style politics. You don’t get a lot of credit if I say, ‘You know, I think Paul Ryan’s a pretty sincere guy and has a beautiful family.’” It was a lovefest.

But it quickly became something else. A few days later, Obama’s then-budget director Peter Orszag dismantled Ryan’s budget at a news conference. That set the tenor for the next year, during which administration aides continued trying to raise Ryan’s profile and establish his budget as the Republican alternative — all so they could destroy it.

Unfortunately for them, Ryan’s profile wasn’t rising fast enough. So Obama did something very unusual. Typically, sitting presidents ignore doomed proposals from the minority party. But on April 13, 2011, with Ryan sitting in the audience, Obama delivered a searing speech — perhaps the toughest of his presidency to that point — on the subject of Ryan’s budget. He said it would mean an America that “would be fundamentally different than what we’ve known throughout our history.” He called it “a vision of our future that is deeply pessimistic.”

The gambit largely worked. The news media devoted more coverage to Ryan’s budget and, perhaps more important, Republicans furiously rallied around Ryan. By pitting his presidency against Ryan and his budget, Obama helped make Ryan the de facto leader of the Republican Party.

As Mitt Romney emerged as the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee, the Obama administration began calling Ryan’s budget the “Romney-Ryan budget.” Priorities USA, the Obama-affiliated super-PAC, dedicated its first ad to tying Romney to Ryan. “Mitt Romney says he’s on the same page as Paul Ryan, who wrote the plan to essentially end Medicare,” the ad’s narrator warned.

Unexpected Result

The Obama team never could have predicted that its efforts would help vault Ryan into the nomination for vice president. But Ryan is a remarkably talented politician — so good, in fact, that he managed to convince Romney and the Republican Party that the argument the Obama administration pursued so aggressively is actually an argument that Republicans will win.

The result, to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, is that the Obama administration knew the fight they wanted, and now they’re going to get it good and hard.

Putting the Ryan budget at the center of the 2012 election has the tactical benefit of forcing Republicans to defend an unpopular proposal; more important, it has the long-term strategic benefit of potentially discrediting the Ryan budget as a political document. Prior to Ryan joining the ticket, a Romney loss seemed likely to strengthen the Republican Party’s conservative wing, because the defeat would be blamed on Romney’s moderate past. Now, if the Romney-Ryan ticket loses, it will vindicate skeptics of the party’s rightward shift, potentially strengthening the party’s moderates. That could produce a more cooperative opposition for Obama to work with in a second term.

But if Obama loses, Republicans will have won the presidency with a mandate to enact a deeply conservative agenda. Left to his own devices, Romney might have been a relatively pragmatic and cautious president. Instead, the Obama administration’s three-year effort to enshrine the Ryan budget at the heart of the Republican Party would prove to have been a crucial push toward enacting that budget into law.

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Ezra Klein is a columnist for Bloomberg View.

Comments

  • Anonymous on August 16, 2012 12:12 PM:

    i think the greatest threat to Obama presidency is euro crisis.
    But i totally see the risk they took. Ideologues of both sides are happy to talk about obscure "role of government" philosophies while regular folks are left out staring at TVs and waiting to hear some practical solutions for the current situations.

  • LosGatosCA on August 17, 2012 11:27 PM:

    "Left to his own devices, Romney might have been a relatively pragmatic and cautious president. "

    As John McEnroe would scream: "ARE YOU SERIOUS?"

    I thought not.

  • W.R. German on August 18, 2012 5:14 AM:

    This particular article is an uncharacteristically hand-wringing episode for the otherwise rational Ezra Klein.

    The only way to rid this nation of the tea party cancer is to make the GOP own it in this election. Making Medicare & women's reproductive rights the central issues of the campaign was a stroke of genius.

  • Kolubian on August 18, 2012 12:26 PM:

    Heheh, LosGatosCA, at least we're not reading *Joe* Klein ....

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  • RobertW on August 18, 2012 1:42 PM:

    Ezra - I really enjoy your normally insightful posts, but I read this yesterday on Bloomberg and still don't understand it. So the threat to Obama is that, while the presence of Ryan on the ballot makes the GOP ticket more extreme and more likely to be beaten (in other words, less of a threat to Obama) if they do win they will likely be more extreme when they govern? That was likely anyhow since a Romney win would have resulted in a GOP Senate & House who would have forced Romney into similar extreme governance as he has shown no spine in standing up to the right wing to this point.

  • RobertW on August 18, 2012 1:44 PM:

    Ezra - I really enjoy your normally insightful posts, but I read this yesterday on Bloomberg and still don't understand it. So the threat to Obama is that, while the presence of Ryan on the ballot makes the GOP ticket more extreme and more likely to be beaten (in other words, less of a threat to Obama) if they do win they will likely be more extreme when they govern? That was likely anyhow since a Romney win would have resulted in a GOP Senate & House who would have forced Romney into similar extreme governance as he has shown no spine in standing up to the right wing to this point.

  • Texas Aggie on August 18, 2012 2:19 PM:

    So what if by some means (voter suppression, $1.5 billion for attack ads) the right wing wins the election! The people who voted for them will be among those who will be taking the hardest hits. They will get what they asked for.

    If the Democrats can't regain control of the house and get a filibuster proof Senate along with the presidency, then the next best option is that the republicans get those wins. Then when everything goes to hell in a handbasket, there is no one else to blame. If you thought Cheney/Bush was bad, R/R will be hell on wheels.

    Those on social security and those looking for a job can emigrate to some other country taking their advantages (SS payments and educational attainments) with them. It would mean that the US would be suffering the brain drain that the rest of the world used to suffer when the US was a rational country. In terms that the right wing would understand, the actual producers of the country would be "going Galt" and the parasitic 1% would be lost without their support structure. One of the slogans in Mexico's insurrection against the recent fraudulent election is "Cuando los de abajo se mueven, los de arriba se caen." "When those on the bottom move, those on top fall."

  • howie on August 18, 2012 3:06 PM:

    This has been a pretty depressing trip to WM today. Jacobs seems intent on reminding us that Obama's as bad as Mitt, we've abandoned the South (I wish that were literal), and now Ezra thinks we should be running a polite quiet campaign lest we give the rethugs a mandate.

    I might as well watch Fox News.

    Texas Aggie, the country can't afford us letting the GOP win so they can screw up again. Plus, they'll probably find a constitutional way to actually ban all candidates other than their own if we give them the entire government.

  • Doug on August 18, 2012 7:28 PM:

    People kvetch and moan because President Obama, supposedly, doesn't use the "bully pulpit" enough and when he does use to illuminate a major danger facing this country - people kvetch and moan!
    I don't inderstand Mr. Klein's reasoning here. Apparently he thinks that a GOP that's just regained "their" WH and control of Congress WOULDN'T enact something along the lines of the "Ryan Budget"? But if they should pass such a budget, it'll all be President Obama's fault because the President made a point of singling out Rep. Ryan and his plan.
    Really? Has what passes for political reporting sunk THIS low?
    The GOP has moved so far to the right as to be unrecognizable to most thinkng Republicans of the past 75 years. Just look at the "winners" of the Republican primaries; the very people who'd be sitting in Congress if they win in November. Anyone who pretends, and that's the correct term, that this bunch of yahoos WOULDN'T enact a Ryan-esque budget, with or without President Obama shining a spotlight on Mr. Ryan, seems determined to destroy any credibility in their political reporting that they may have.
    Republicans win elections through obfuscation, dissembling and outright lying. They employ those tactics because, besides being slime, they can't win without them. Surely Mr. Klein hasn't forgotten 2010 already? Or 2008? How about 1994? Or, I'm dating myself here, 1980?
    We've also seen that the MSM prizes invitations to DC cocktail parties and being considered one of the "in group" as being much more important that actually doing their jobs and, you know, reporting what happens.
    So, let's recap, shall we?
    The President, as do others, sees what Republican policies, for want of better term, will do to the country and its citizens. He, along with others, notes that the MSM can no longer be expected to do its job and inform the public about these policies, thus allowing the public to decide if they approve or not. He then sees a Republican who has put together a "plan" that highlights EXACTLY those Republican policies that he deems most dangerous to the welfare of the country.
    And because the President shines a spotlight on those policies, he's ensuring said policies will be enacted if Republicans win! Because, you know, Republicans would NEVER EVER have thought of doing so on their own!
    Oh. My. God.

  • Nick on August 18, 2012 10:28 PM:

    Come on, Ezra -- 'Romney left to his own devices'? The man HAS no devices. He would be the dutiful Norquist auto-pen whether Obama ever mentioned Paul Ryan.

    Stop it, man.

  • gdb on August 19, 2012 9:19 AM:

    This election will be decided on the state of the economy in October. Mitt is uncharacteristically risking all that GNP and unemployment will obviously worsen by then. That is a low risk bet to occur in the next 12 months (For starters, Google:EU), but high risk for the next two. Mitt is such a bad campaigner that he can't capitalize a bad economomy and a mediocre opponent -- so what other choiuce does he really have?

    However, whoever wins in November is likely to face an economic crisis they have neither the personalities nor policies to solve.. BHO hasn't for four years, and it ain't all the Repubs fault. [BHO had the biggest congressional majorities since LBJ-- but didn't know how to use them.] It's a Hobson's choice, but I suspect the best result for Progressives is for Romney to win in November. His policies WILL fail.. but so will BHO's. Both parties will re-organize ONLY after a dramatic defeat.. Best if the Dems get that now, for both the Dems AND the US. Right now its the moderate right to right (BHO) vs the far right (Mittens)--- and neiher have workable policies that were once the policies of moderate Dems (and moderate to liberal Repubs).

  • howie on August 19, 2012 11:44 AM:

    Gdb,

    How does one deal with a filibustering minority when they refuse to deal I even when you give them everything?

    And no, the POTUS never had a filibuster proof majority, he had Nelson and Lieberman and Landrieu...

  • howie on August 19, 2012 1:45 PM:

    howie. Its called using budget reconciliation and/or the nuclear option. BHO never will-- or govern effectively. Not re-electing him is not much of a loss-- What exactly is he going to get done in the next 4 years? My bet is you'll tell me how he'll block Repub initiatives, not what he'll accomplish. Yeh-riiight. Just like the initiatives he so effectively blocked the last 4 years-- those that he didn't support or enable!!.

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  • Theda Skocpol on August 19, 2012 5:53 PM:

    I usually think Ezra K is smart, or at least clever. But this is an utterly phantasgamagorical argument.

    Every historical trendline we have in political science -- quantitative or more organizational/qualitative -- shows the headlong gallop of the GOP to the far, far right. Ryan is a creature, and one of the agents, of that; and was himself groomed by AFP for his role. -- Romney 4.0 post-2010 has demonstrated again and again that he his captive to, and catering to, the very real lunge of his party to the far right. He would be controlled by the same elements as a first-term president, with or without Ryan. Obama created none of this.

    What a silly argument. A moment of inside-the-Beltway delusion, EK, where you succomb to the village view that gestures and arguments in your world create all important realities. You may need a summer vacation.

  • PEA on August 20, 2012 12:08 AM:

    BHO may have tried to give some attention to Ryan's plan so as to show the sleepy public what the hell the Repugs are truly proposing. Having Ryan on the ticket gives us a chance of making it even more clear to the many who don't pay much attention just how very far out the Repugs are and how stark the contrast is. Of course, unfortunately half the electorate is not rational. And some of the rational ones will be prevented from voting one way or another. I disagree with others who think it hardly matters who is elected. Just one small example: I want women to have some control over our own health care. It matters. If R/R win, you can bet the Supreme Ct and many judgeships will become very right for the next 30 years, and a Repug Congress will enact all kinds of far far right legislation. ALEC is salivating. The wacko so-called Christian right are salivating. The Kochs and Adelsons are salivating. Yes, it matters who is elected. BHO isn't perfect, but there is NO COMPARISON. Get real.

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  • Nacho Cheese on August 26, 2012 11:11 AM:

    There were two huge miscalculations:

    1) That anything more than a sliver of the voting public would take the time and effort to look under the covers of the Ryan plan to see "the devil in the details" (and be able to perform any higher-order thinking/analysis), and

    2) How effectively the Republican ticket would "keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.

    Most of the electorate is dumb as dogsh!t and the Republican noise machine has a PhD in fecal matters.

  • Brad on August 27, 2012 2:31 AM:

    When Paul Ryan becomes Vice President in January, Obama will only have himself to blame. When Paul Ryan becomes President in 2021, it will be because of one Barack H. Obama, America's last leftist President. When Romney wins and the economy recovers, Americans will not soon vote for a return to the misery of the Obama years and Obama's dream will be shattered. It will be all his fault and his alone.

    Obama could have run against John McCain Version 2.0, but he chose to run against Paul Ryan instead. He will spend the rest of his days regretting his mistake that cost him the Presidency and led to the reversal of everything he had accomplished and much that the left had accomplished in the previous century.

    When Paul Ryan's turn is up, it will be time for Rand Paul, as the movement his father inspired 20 years earlier will finally take the White House and then the dismantling of big government will accelerate. All Barack Obama is now is dust in the winds of history.

  • anon on August 28, 2012 5:54 PM:

    My opinion is that elders, women, students and working families will be watching closely quite soon, and the economics of this election will be whatever policies of either party will directly hurt them--and Republicans will hurt people the most.
    The Republican War on Women, for example, is insulting as well as frightening.
    Young men thinking these fundamentalists out there will ban birth control and it is too soon in their lives for babies.
    The Ryan Rudget raising the interest rates of student loans.
    The absence/obstruction of Republicans in passing jobs bills.
    The war-mongering of Republicans. Sabre-rattling and wanting to stir up hornets nests in the Middle East. Changes to veterans' benefits.
    People in their forties and fifties feeling they are going to get screwed with promised social programs of Medicare/Social Security that they already paid into for years.
    Seniors back to dealing with Bush's donut hole costing them large sums for prescription medications if Republicans repeal Obamacare--and people of all ages with pre-existing conditions once again short-changed if Republicans repeal the the affordable health care act.
    The relentless lies and race-baiting from Romney and Ryan that it doesn't take a google to figure out are lies/ethnic slurs.

  • anon on August 29, 2012 8:45 PM:

    Is it possible to have a constructive conversation on the issues without suggesting that either side desires to trash the future of our country? Do we look only to this next year or should we be looking 10 years down the road? I lean right - will the establishment on both the right and the left ever decide that we have to stop stealing from our future generations and get our spending under control? For the many here leaning left, when do you turn your attention to the risk associated with the debt crisis? how do you see it playing out in 3, 5, 10 years? Thanks.

  • AnonAnon on August 30, 2012 11:00 AM:

    To add to your "oh-I'm-impartial-no-really-I-am!" point Anon: for those of you who lean right (like yourself), will you ever take a good hard look at how the super-duper wealthy pay little or nothing in taxes compared to us shlubs in the middle class? You think that might put a little dent in the debt that vexes you so?

  • A women voter on August 31, 2012 1:47 PM:

    This headline of this article is stupid for example. President obama holds the second highest position any person could have.(President of the U.S.). Why would he even want to be in the same catagory as Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan does not hold a high position as of 08/30/12 and won't ever after the presidential election of 2012.
    Obama will be re-elected to finish what he started to clean up the last eight years of doing nothing in the UNited States by the previous president.

  • Washington realist on August 31, 2012 4:25 PM:

    I find it humerous and sad that both Romney and Ryan cast themselves as great compassionate humanitarians wanting the best for ALL Americans, yet kick the whole democracy thing in the teeth for sake of "free-market capitalism".

    The Republican faithful love to quote Reagan and tell us government is the problem. They're wrong, Bad government is the problem! Bad government isn't bailing out GM and passing Obamacare, its vowing to block all legislation the day Obama swears into office. Its trying to pass the repeal of Obamacare 33 times yet, not passing a single jobs bill, or farm bill. Its pretending to be fiscally conservative with the debt ceiling, when the same members passed unpaid wars, unpaid Medicare part D (see $716 billion), and unpaid tax cuts.

    Obama is not the liberal messiah the GOP claims. He is a man. A family man. A statesman. And a politician. And he is the President. Looking at what he has accomplished in his 1st term would be impressive if it weren't jaded by partisan lenses. Romney essentially asked if we are proud of Obama today as we were in 2008; Yes! No apologies. No, what ifs. Not even a, this is Bush's fault that Jeb brought up. Hope and Change was needed in 2008. We don't need it today. We just need the President to show the GOP what a real leader looks like.

  • Dan nap on August 31, 2012 5:04 PM:

    I want to hear more about this meeting the repubs had right after the innaugeration of president Obama.Who was at it and is it true that they started the plan to make sure Obama failed and would never see another term.