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Is budget freeze a political gimmick?

By Gloria Borger, CNN Senior Political Analyst
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gloria Borger says American voters are not fond of political gimmicks
  • She says dependable Massachusetts voters didn't like being taken for granted
  • Obama's new populist rhetoric sounds like combo of Al Gore and John Edwards, Borger says
  • Obama must address deficit, because people are worried about it, she says
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Editor's note: Gloria Borger is a senior political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "Campbell Brown," "AC360°" and "State of the Union With John King," as well as participating in special event coverage.

Washington (CNN) -- Here's something to keep in mind about American voters: They're not fond of political gimmicks.

Sure, they understand that a certain amount of contrivance -- aka pandering -- is a part of politics. They weren't born yesterday, and have been through a few elections. But the voters have their limits.

So when Democrats in the Massachusetts state legislature try to perform legislative jujitsu to save a Democratic vote for health care -- as in the case with Ted Kennedy's seat -- they were skeptical. As it turns out, even dependable Massachusetts voters didn't like being taken for granted.

Maybe that's the lesson Beau Biden learned this week when he decided not to run for his father's old Senate seat in Delaware. The seat was being kept warm for the younger Biden. He's eminently qualified, by the way -- an Iraq war veteran and state attorney general. But after the Massachusetts debacle, he demurred -- probably a smart decision.

But what about the president's pledge during the election to televise health care deliberations on C-SPAN? Was that just a campaign tactic -- er, gimmick -- to distance himself from candidate Hillary Clinton, whom he was portraying as the captive of Washington special interests?

Seems so, given the fact that deals with the pharmaceutical companies, labor unions and assorted senators all happened far from the cameras. It was "a legitimate mistake," the president told Diane Sawyer of ABC. "We had to make so many decisions quickly, in a very difficult set of circumstances, that after a while, we started worrying more about getting the policy right than getting the process right."

What's more, he added, "I think the health care debate, as it unfolded, legitimately raised concerns, not just among my opponents, but also among supporters that we just don't know what's going on. And it's an ugly process and it looks like there are a bunch of back room deals."

That's because there were. And the president deserves some credit here for admitting that the process -- if not the substance -- was handled badly.

But the public can also be excused for a certain amount of skepticism when the White House takes a sharp right turn to address all things money-related -- after the clear message from the voters of Massachusetts last week. Not only the programs to help the middle class, but also the plan to freeze non-defense discretionary spending for a few years -- after specifically criticizing John McCain during the campaign for a similar plan.

Add to all of this the new populist rhetoric that sounds vaguely like a combination of Al Gore and John Edwards from their presidential campaigns.

Gimmick?

Yes, and no.

The White House clearly had to find a way to change the subject from all-health-care-all-the-time (and we are still waiting to see what he says in his speech to the nation on that topic tonight) to the economy and jobs. And the White House had to pay homage to getting the deficit under control -- because polls show the people are worried about it.

In truth, as budget director Peter Orszag points out, the administration had been working on the middle class package and the freeze for months. So is this something they have been thinking about? Yes. Does it look contrived because they're throwing it all out there now? Yes. "If you want to break through the clutter, sometimes you have to use gimmicks," says former senior Clinton administration official William Galston. "This [budget freeze] is a good, but small, first step in the right direction."

And what about all of that populism I-will-fight-for-you stuff? Gimmick?

Actually, more of a reflexive political action. When in doubt, tell the voters you're on their side. It's a popular move that's been used by every president and political candidate -- because it works. So if it's a gimmick, it's one we like.

After all, if you're on my side, how can you be wrong?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.