WASHINGTON â€” Over the summer President Barack Obama pushed a â€œgrand bargainâ€ that called on Republicans and Democrats to forge a compromise: each would agree to painful sacrifices that would slash the nationâ€™s deficit and shore up the social safety net for decades.
The approach failed to achieve a deal, angered many Democrats and coincided with a steady drop in Obamaâ€™s prospects for re-election.
In releasing a new deficit-cutting plan Monday, Obama displayed a striking change in course. His shift in both substance and rhetoric amounted to a tacit admission that the strategy he had pursued from April through August had failed.
Gone was the effort to strike a deal with Republicans. Gone were the summertime proposals to consider raising the eligibility age for Medicare or to change the cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security. Gone, too, was the conciliatory language about finding common ground and challenging the orthodoxies of both parties.
In their place was a firm veto threat, changes in Medicare that would largely protect beneficiaries, a demand for higher taxes from the wealthy and a catchy slogan, the â€œBuffett Rule,â€ designed to convey Obamaâ€™s belief that people earning more than $1 million a year should not be able to pay a lower tax rate than middle-income households.
â€œIt is wrong that in the United States of America, a teacher or a nurse or a construction worker who earns $50,000 should pay higher tax rates than somebody pulling in $50 million,â€ Obama said. â€œAnybody who says we canâ€™t change the tax code to correct that, 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.â€
The country faces a choice â€” higher taxes on the wealthy or deep, painful spending cuts, he declared.
â€œThis is not class warfare. Itâ€™s math,â€ Obama said.
Even late last week, the degree to which the White House would shift course remained unclear.
Administration officials were still weighing possible cuts in Medicare benefits when they held a closed-door meeting last week with Senate Democrats, who argued strongly against that â€” a message the White House apparently took to heart.
The 90-minute session went a long way toward shoring up Obamaâ€™s support from his allies on Capitol Hill even if they disagree with specific aspects of his proposals, as several key Democrats certainly will.
Republicans, meanwhile, rejected Obamaâ€™s proposals just minutes after he rolled his plan out in a Rose Garden speech.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said: â€œPitting one group of Americans against another is not leadership.â€
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, dismissed the proposal as a â€œmassive tax hike, phantom savings.â€
ut those Republican rejections may not trouble the White House because Obamaâ€™s new proposal was designed less as a solution to the deficit problem than as a political argument to put before voters. It frames what Obamaâ€™s advisers hope will be a stark choice for Americans: a Democratic Party that seeks a mix of tax increases and spending cuts to pare the deficit vs. a GOP that has ruled out tax increases of any sort, even on millionaires.
â€œThe president put down a marker today and he did it more forcefully than we have seen before,â€ Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters after Obamaâ€™s speech, reflecting the Democratic hope. â€œIt makes the Republican position almost indefensible.â€
Despite his sagging position in the polls, Obama and his aides have some reason to believe their new approach could work. Most Americans tell pollsters they believe that those earning more than $250,000 a year should pay higher taxes to reduce the deficit. And a solid majority support the presidentâ€™s call for ending the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest families which, Obama reiterated again on Monday, were supposed to be temporary tax breaks.
â€œIf Republicans want to go in a different direction from where the American people are, that is to their own political detriment,â€ said Bill Burton, a former White House aide and co-founder of the super-PAC Priorities USA Action.
Obamaâ€™s plan also could galvanize a Democratic Party that has been demoralized. A Bloomberg poll this month showed that 44 percent of Obamaâ€™s supporters like him as much as ever, but 48 percent said they either no longer support him or their enthusiasm has dissipated.
Democrats, some of whom were distancing themselves from Obama as recently as last week, rushed to compliment him Monday, with statements of support also coming from groups on the left that had been critical.
Moveon.org, for example, will air a 30-second TV ad this week touting Obamaâ€™s â€œBuffett Rule.â€ The spot urges people to call Congress and urge them to â€œraise taxes on millionaires and billionaires so all Americans pay their fair share.â€
On Monday, Obama appeared ready for a showdown with Republicans, vowing to veto any bill that cuts entitlement programs without also including revenue increases. â€œWe are not going to have a one-sided deal that hurts the folks who are most vulnerable,â€ Obama said.
Obamaâ€™s deficit proposal now goes to the congressional super committee, a group of six Democrats and six Republicans charged with cutting at least $1.5 trillion from federal deficits over the next 10 years. If the committee fails to come up with a proposal to send to Congress by Nov. 23, it will trigger automatic cuts to take effect in 2013, split between military and non-military spending.