Obama must struggle to sell lousy deal

“Without promotion, something terrible happens … Nothing!” — P.T. Barnum

Americans will line up around the block for a sugar-coated Satan sandwich. It’s all a matter of marketing.

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For President Obama and his campaign team in Chicago, selling such a sandwich is likely an enviable endeavor over selling the debt-ceiling legislation despised by the left that emerged from Congress. 

While the White House has done its best to defend the compromise, the bill Obama is signing is seen as despicable by much of his base, and polls show voters are disgusted with Washington after a monthlong national slap fight they saw as more appropriate for Jerry Springer than the world’s last remaining superpower.

But the bill Obama signed is the product the White House has to sell, and sell it Obama must.

After being grounded for most of July, Air Force One is about to return to the skies. For fundraisers, of course, but also for a reclamation tour: Obama is trying to reclaim the debate and sell this sh — uh, Satan sandwich as a victory for Americans.


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Already the president on Tuesday was trying to pivot to jobs, but not without first making clear he was disgusted with the process that just played out.

White House advisers are careful to caution that the president won’t be going out to re-fight the particulars of the debate or a deal some Democrats believe will be economically crippling because of its spending cuts. That agreement will not be the centerpiece of any trips or campaign stops.

Instead, it becomes part of a narrative — Obama as the only grown-up in Washington, getting a deal through compromise and working across the aisle to do big things for America.

Healthcare, Wall Street reform, bin Laden, deficit reduction.

These are the makings of a stump speech that looks pretty on paper and nowhere else. Of the four, bin Laden is the only one that fits on a bumper sticker. The other three take some serious explanation, and absorbing the upside of this latest deal requires either a doctorate or imbecilic faith in Washington.

Still, if 2000 and 2004 taught Democrats anything, it’s that the American electorate loves a good explanation.

“There are two positives for the president,” one Democratic strategist said. “One, in the end he gave independents what they want — less spending. And two, the issues for the 2012 election are clearly framed. Do you privatize Medicare and make seniors pay more to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy, or do you require them to sacrifice, too?”

People will buy that. Unless they have to go through words like “sequestration” to get there. Or if they, unlike Washington, think the unemployment rate is more important. Or if they quit listening because they were just utterly disgusted by everything that came out of the swamp over the last month. Or if this exercise in inanity cost them their jobs.

Big ifs.

Of course, there are other positives for the president. 

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, offered a late response to the debt talks that few Republicans seemed to notice. Romney announced that he opposed the final deal, but only when it was clear it was passing — and after his absence from the debate had been noted. 

Few if any House Republicans seemed to notice Romney’s statements. 

Still, this is the president’s economy. He owns it, and despite the wishful thinking in Chicago, next year will be a referendum on how Obama has handled it.

On Sunday night, not long after Obama announced the deal to the country, senior officials tried to explain how Obama would make the case to Democrats who thought the deal was giving away the store. One official tried to explain the sequester, which is intended to force Congress to accept spending cuts if a committee of lawmakers fails to reach a compromise on future cuts, or if Congress rejects them.

“I think the case we’ll make to Democrats is the same case we’ll make to the American people, that this was a balanced package,” one official said. “It holds out the promise for additional deficit reduction done in a way the president thinks is right for the country. If the sequester were to hit, it’s done in a way that protects low-income programs, has balance between defense and non-defense.

“My sense is the more people learn about the sequester, the more comfortable they’ll become with it, because it’s done in a very careful way.”

Got that?

The challenge for Obama and his team is to take that message, simplify it, add to it policies that improve the economy, then message that. 

And given that it just took a month of partisan prison rules to pay the country’s credit card, it’s hard to bet at this point that Obama will be able to add policies that will improve the economy.

That leaves the president as the man of compromise, a profane word on the fringes but still a value adored by independent voters.

But if all that compromise doesn’t produce jobs, then Obama will hit the road trying to sell a marked-down, day-old steaming pile of Satan sandwiches to a country that ordered jobs for a main course. 

And not even P.T. Barnum could sell that.

Youngman is the White House correspondent for The Hill. Find his column, Obama’s Bid for Reelection, on thehill.com