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What is Obama's post-super committee strategy?

By Alan Silverleib, CNN
updated 3:55 PM EST, Tue November 22, 2011
President Obama promised Monday to veto any attempt to undo the $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts slated under current law.
President Obama promised Monday to veto any attempt to undo the $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts slated under current law.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Analysts are split over whether President Obama should try to pursue a deficit reduction deal
  • Ex-Clinton communications director says Americans are looking for solutions
  • Expert: Ability to get deal may depend on what GOP hears at home over Thanksgiving
  • Democratic strategist says Obama can pursue a deal while also attacking the GOP

Washington (CNN) -- One of the oldest axioms in politics is that you should never let a good crisis go to waste. Now that the hopelessly divided deficit reduction super committee has failed, it is apparent to just about everyone that Washington has a serious crisis of governance.

Question: What -- if anything -- will President Barack Obama do about it? With the 2012 election season already under way, should he assume a deal is impossible and use the panel's failure as a campaign weapon? Or is he better off knocking heads together on Capitol Hill and trying to ram through a deal that will prevent unpopular automatic spending cuts from taking effect starting in 2013?

Veteran political observers are divided, and the answer could have serious ramifications for the economy and policies Americans will live with for the foreseeable future. The president promised Monday to veto any attempt to undo the $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts -- including $600 billion from the Pentagon -- slated under current law.

"There will be no easy off ramps on this one," he declared. "We need to keep the pressure up to compromise."

Don Baer, communications director in Bill Clinton's White House, says Obama has a lot to gain by making a serious push for a new deal, maybe starting with the high-profile State of the Union address in late January or early February.

"From a political standpoint, the president will be better served by showing that he's ready to be a leader regardless of what actually happens," Baer told CNN. "(Obama should) push for Congress to engage ... and show that perhaps he alone is the true grown-up leader of the country."

Doing so puts Obama in "a better position than being at the same level as Republicans, pointing fingers about who is to blame," Baer said. "What the country is looking for is for someone to deliver solutions and perform the role they were elected to do."

He added, "It's amazing how often the right thing to do is also the right thing politically. Right now the perception is everyone's playing politics (and) that's a not a healthy situation."

And what about the Democrats' liberal base? If Obama somehow did manage to cut a deal that includes new major spending reductions, wouldn't that risk deflating the president's core supporters at a time when conservative Republicans are already itching to get to the polls?

Nonsense, according to Baer. Fear of the Republicans will help drive liberal turnout in November.

"Where are they going? Are they going to vote for Romney? Are they not going to turn out in droves? Presumably, they're still going to rally around Obama," he said.

Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said the response that GOP members of Congress get from their constituents over the Thanksgiving holiday could help determine the probability of reaching an agreement.

"We know how it plays out immediately, which is that members go home for Thanksgiving, and they're going to get an earful," Ornstein said.

"The question is which earful will matter the most. Is it going to be those members who hear from their constituents, 'What's wrong with you morons? Get together and cut a deal?' Or is it going to be from those who give the earful, 'If you raise one dime in taxes, we're going to kill you in a primary'?"

Constituents' reactions "could harden positions, especially among tea party Republicans, or could provide a little more urgency to act," he said.

But Thomas Mann, a senior political analyst at the Brookings Institution, sees little possibility that congressional Republicans will yield on taxes any time soon. Trying to cut a deal with them is not only futile, it risks dragging the president down politically by more closely associating him with a seemingly dysfunctional Congress, he said.

"If I were Obama, I would invest little if anything in trying to do something before the election to avoid" the automatic cuts, Mann said. "He should push aggressively to extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits, and keep all the of Bush tax cuts on track to expire at the end of 2012."

Any deal with congressional Republicans, Mann argued, would almost certainly include a permanent extension of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts.

"This would greatly worsen the deficit problem and remove the only political lever Obama would have, if re-elected, to force revenue raising," he said, noting the tax cuts' estimated $4 trillion value over the next decade.

Adam Sheingate, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist, agreed that Republicans are locked into their anti-tax position, a fact that makes any pre-election deal unlikely. Sheingate insisted that the Democratic-controlled Senate will ensure Obama won't be put in the position of having to veto any unacceptable proposal.

The only real question now is how the president plays it politically, he said.

"Presidents adopt a leadership stance above the partisan fray when the opposition is likely to take more of the blame for inaction or obstruction. Both Truman in 1948 and Clinton in 1996 showed the electoral benefits of such a strategy," Sheingate said.

"Given that the likelihood of failure by the super committee was so high, Obama took a calculated risk by remaining somewhat removed from the process," he said. "Whether that strategy pays off depends on his ability to pin the failure on the Republicans and to portray the GOP as out of touch with voters."

Sheingate said that "it is now up to Obama to craft his campaign in a manner that draws out the sharp distinctions between his vision for the future and that of his Republican rivals."

But Northeastern University political scientist Bill Mayer said that, from his perspective, congressional Republicans were the ones who showed a bit more flexibility in the super committee talks. Mayer pointed to a proposal from super committee member Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, to raise taxes by $250 billion by limiting individual deductions.

Democrats -- including Obama -- would "rather have an issue than a bill, which is not all that uncommon," Mayer said. Lately, he noted, Obama has been gaining traction in some opinion polls through a combination of economic populism and blasting the GOP for inaction.

The president "may make a few attempts (at a deal) so that he can claim he tried to reach a compromise, but any attempt will be designed so that Republicans will reject them," Mayer said.

Mayer also noted that since none of the automatic spending cuts are scheduled to take effect before 2013, there will still be a brief window to get things done after the election. Key decisions will almost certainly be postponed until November or December 2012, he said.

Democratic strategist Steve Murphy, who ran Dick Gephardt's 2004 presidential campaign, said it's possible for Obama to pursue a deal seriously while also using the super committee's failure to boost his standing in the polls.

"Of course, he's going to use it as a campaign issue," Murphy said, referring to Republican opposition to higher taxes on the wealthy. "Republicans may still think it's 2010, but we're a long way from there."

CNN's Xuan Thai contributed to this report.

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