How to win the fu­ture? It de­pends on the game plan.

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - Dan Balz balzd@wash­post.com

The out­lines of the do­mes­tic side of the 2012 elec­tion de­bate came into sharper fo­cus this past week. Pres­i­dent Obama called on Amer­ica to win the fu­ture and made govern­ment a prin­ci­pal in­stru­ment of that ef­fort. Repub­li­cans coun­tered by point­ing at Washington and its ap­petite for spend­ing as the sin­gle biggest threat to a se­cure fu­ture.

Obama sees global eco­nomic com­pe­ti­tion as a ma­jor threat to Amer­ica’s long-term pros­per­ity and is­sued a ral­ly­ing cry to the coun­try to meet that chal­lenge. Repub­li­cans see debt and deficits as a ma­jor ob­sta­cle to un­leash­ing the en­tre­pre­neur­ial forces that have long been one of the coun­try’s strong suits and called on Amer­i­cans to rise to the chal­lenge of check­ing spend­ing.

Obama’s vi­sion barely hinted at the hard fis­cal choices that many see ahead. Given the out­come of the midterm elec­tions, he was obliged to talk about the deficits, but he showed lit­tle en­thu­si­asm for lead­ing the ef­fort to deal with them. Repub­li­cans made those fis­cal chal­lenges the cen­ter­piece of their vi­sion and promised ac­tion, couch­ing the prob­lems in al­most apoc­a­lyp­tic terms.

Repub­li­cans won this de­bate in 2010 and have made re­duc­tions in govern­ment spend­ing their high­est pri­or­ity as a party. Their midterm suc­cesses were aided, how­ever, by the wide­spread dis­sat­is­fac­tion over the econ­omy and a per­sis­tently high un­em­ploy­ment rate well above 9 per­cent.

Obama and his team be­lieve that fed­eral deficits and alarm over the size and scope of govern­ment had far less to do with the out­come than the econ­omy-in­duced sour mood. Count­ing on some eas­ing of un­em­ploy­ment and even mod­estly higher growth rates, he hopes that his vi­sion will trump the Repub­li­cans in 2012.

Though he con­tin­ues to pay lip ser­vice to the deficit, his State of the Union ad­dress sug­gests that he has con­cluded that lack of se­ri­ous at­ten­tion to the deficit on his part will not cost him po­lit­i­cally. He is happy for now to let Repub­li­cans lead on that dif­fi­cult is­sue.

In fo­cus­ing on win­ning the fu­ture, Obama has iden­ti­fied an is­sue of ris­ing con­cern to the Amer­i­can peo­ple. About a third of all Amer­i­cans see global eco­nomic in­sta­bil­ity as a threat to world sta­bil­ity, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est Washington Post-ABC News poll.

That is far more than the per­cent­age that sees ei­ther in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ism or the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq as the prin­ci­pal threat to global sta­bil­ity. ( The poll was con­ducted be­fore the up­ris­ings in Egypt that are now a ma­jor source of con­cern and a threat to sta­bil­ity in the Mid­dle East.)

Glob­al­iza­tion is viewed in in­creas­ingly neg­a­tive terms. A decade ago, three in five Amer­i­cans said the trend to­ward a global econ­omy was a good thing. To­day, ac­cord­ing to the Post-ABC poll, just 36 per­cent agree with that pos­i­tive as­sess­ment. A plu­ral­ity (42 per­cent) sees glob­al­iza­tion as a bad thing, al­most twice as many as a decade ago.

Democrats were the most pos­i­tive about the trend to­ward a global econ­omy — de­spite the fact that Democrats in Congress and key party con­stituen­cies have strongly op­posed many of the trade agree­ments of past and present. Al­most half of Democrats, but only about a quar­ter of Repub­li­cans, said the shift to a global econ­omy has been a good thing.

Obama’s State of the Union caught the pub­lic mood in other ways. His fo­cus on rein­vig­o­rat­ing Amer­ica’s man­u­fac­tur­ing base and on fix­ing schools, two broad themes in his State of the Union ad­dress, tracked with the find­ings of a re­cent NBC NewsWall Street Jour­nal poll that asked peo­ple what wor­ries them most about the coun­try’s fu­ture. The flight of man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs over­seas was the most-cited worry about the coun­try’s fu­ture (33 per­cent) and the poor qual­ity of pub­lic schools was sec­ond (25 per­cent).

What gives Amer­i­cans con­fi­dence about the fu­ture? Some ba­sic Amer­i­can be­liefs are still the key. In the NBC-Wall Street Jour­nal sur­vey, the three most-cited fac­tors were: the op­por­tu­nity to work hard and get ahead; cre­ativ­ity and in­no­va­tion (a ma­jor theme of the pres­i­dent’s ad­dress); and the free en­ter­prise sys­tem.

Obama’s de­ci­sion to rel­e­gate the deficit to the back end of his dis­cus­sion about the coun­try’s eco­nomic fu­ture might have been cal­cu­lated. The two pil­lars of the Repub­li­can re­sponse to Obama’s speech — the record deficits and a warn­ing that the size and scope of govern­ment threaten eco­nomic pros­per­ity and in­di­vid­ual free­dom — fell far­ther down the list of wor­ries in the NBC-Wall Street Jour­nal sur­vey. A fifth of re­spon­dents cited the deficit, and only 14 per­cent named the role of govern­ment.

Still, Repub­li­cans know their loy­al­ists. Repub­li­cans are far more likely than Democrats to cite the deficit, the role of govern­ment or a de­cline in moral and re­li­gious val­ues as fac­tors that make them worry about the coun­try’s fu­ture — in num­bers equal to or slightly greater than those who name the flight of man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs over­seas. High­light­ing the gap be­tween the par­ties, just 3 per­cent of Democrats see the in­creas­ing role of govern­ment as a threat.

That would seem to put Obama on more solid ground po­lit­i­cally, play­ing the op­ti­mist to the GOP’s eat-your-spinach mes­sage about the deficit and the debt. That, at least, is what the Democrats are count­ing on, that op­ti­mism trumps pes­simism ev­ery time.

But there is a coun­ternar­ra­tive at work in the coun­try right now that could test all that. In the states, the so-called truth tell­ers are on the rise. Whether it is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) or In­di­ana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) or New York Gov. An­drew Cuomo (D), state ex­ec­u­tives rec­om­mend­ing tough steps to con­trol spend­ing are earn­ing praise from their con­stituents.

Un­like the fed­eral govern­ment, states must bal­ance their bud­gets. Gov­er­nors and state leg­is­la­tors have been forced to en­act cuts in the past sev­eral years, with more com­ing. Washington has avoided do­ing so be­cause it can. The Repub­li­cans say the coun­try can’t af­ford to wait any longer. Obama does not ex­actly dis­agree in prin­ci­ple with that as­sess­ment, but he has yet to show any ini­tia­tive on that front — not even af­ter his debt and deficit com­mis­sion showed him the way.

Obama may be mak­ing the po­lit­i­cally safe choice — as­sum­ing a mod­est turn­around in the econ­omy and the ab­sence of a calamity from the ac­cu­mu­lated debt he and oth­ers have helped to build up.

Repub­li­cans are mak­ing a dif­fer­ent bet, as­sum­ing that they are se­ri­ous about ful­fill­ing their cam­paign pledges. They are gam­bling that Amer­i­cans are ready for what GOP lead­ers in Washington and the states call a grown-up con­ver­sa­tion about deficits and the size of govern­ment.

That will be the heart of the do­mes­tic pol­icy de­bate that will play out over the next two years, a de­bate that could well de­cide the out­come of the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in 2012.

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