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Focusing on deficit a lose-lose move for Obama

By Julian E. Zelizer, Special to CNN
  • Julian Zelizer: If Obama focuses on deficit to appease GOP, he turns off his own party
  • Republicans have proved they will not support him, he says, despite compromises
  • Carter's shift to the right in 1978 angered fellow Democrats, Zelizer writes
  • Obama has nothing to win, he says, everything to lose if he drops focus on joblessness

Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter," published by Times Books, and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush's administration, published by Princeton University Press.

(CNN) -- The political pressure on the administration to tackle deficit reduction is mounting. Even before he began negotiations with Republicans last week, President Obama conceded ground by announcing a federal pay freeze.

He has given indications that, like President Jimmy Carter in 1978, he intends to shift his focus from unemployment to deficits in response to the "message" from the midterms.

Yet Obama should be extremely cautious before he shifts the focus of his agenda. Emphasizing deficits over unemployment threatens to carry huge political costs for Democrats. The latest unemployment numbers are a stark reminder of the terrible shape of the economy. Regardless of the conventional wisdom, moreover, the move won't leave him in a stronger political position. At a time when many economists believe that the time is not right to move toward deficit reduction, given that the economy is still fragile and unstable, Obama is heading into a political trap.

The major political problem for Obama is that making deficit reduction an immediate priority is unlikely to win over Republican support. The record since 2008 has been that even when Obama gives ground to the GOP on issues like health care and economic policy, Republicans have rarely offered their support in return. Rather, the GOP has demanded more from the president, while continuing to attack the administration as left-of-center.

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Unless Obama agrees to deal with Social Security change -- the major Republican prize -- any steps that he takes will be characterized as inadequate. Assuming that moderate voters are swayed by these attacks and perceptions, Obama won't find himself in any better political position within the next few years. The move rests on the false promise of post-partisan politics.

Indeed, Republicans have already given an indication of their strategy by circulating a letter in the Senate stating that other than on tax cuts and government spending, the party intends to block every bill in the lame-duck Congress brought up before the tax bill.

At the same time, Obama's moves toward a focus on deficit reduction will surely cause tension within the Democratic Party. When President Jimmy Carter made this choice to shift to the right in 1978, the brewing tensions with liberal Democrats exploded. On October 24, 1978, the president made a televised speech in which he called for spending cuts, wage and price guidelines, and other measures to control inflation. The anger from the left was palpable.

In a midterm convention in December 1978, Sen. Ted Kennedy, who was starting to think of a run for the Democratic nomination in 1980, told fellow party members that "sometimes a party must sail against the wind," rather than giving into conservative pressure, as he said Carter had done. The tension never subsided, and carried over right into the Democratic Convention. Democrats, badly divided, could not match Ronald Reagan's campaign.

These kinds of tensions immediately emerged when Obama announced the pay freeze. The AFL-CIO criticized him for playing on negative perceptions of government workers.

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"President Obama shouldn't be worried about criticism from 'the professional left'," said Stephanie Taylor of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, quoted in an article in The Hill. "He should be worried about criticism from millions of former Obama voters who are severely disappointed in him right now. The fact is that many former Obama voters stayed home in 2010, and unless he starts enacting the popular progressive change he campaigned on, they may stay home again in 2012."

If Obama thinks that the deficit, for policy purposes, should be his top priority in 2010, then he should certainly move forward with all the initiatives that will come. (Many economists would argue that this would only aggravate the unemployment numbers.)

But the timing suggests that this is about politics. If the move is about politics, and he takes this step primarily in the belief that this will serve as elixir to get over the damage from the midterm elections, then he is badly mistaken.

The moves will not win over Republicans and at the same time threaten to deepen the rift between Obama and congressional Democrats. All of this will happen and the levels of unemployment won't abate. Like Carter, Obama can find himself in the worst of both worlds, angering his supporters and doing nothing to appease his opponents, thus becoming increasingly isolated as the 2012 elections approach.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian E. Zelizer.