- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2011

The bump in President Obama’s approval polls after Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden didn’t last long. It was shot down by $4-a-gallon gas, a 9 percent unemployment rate and an economy that has slowed to barely 2 percent growth. Thursday’s Gallup poll puts his job approval/disapproval score at 48 percent to 43 percent, down from midlevel scores in the 50s after U.S. special operation forces eliminated bin Laden.

His re-election poll numbers this month aren’t anything to write home about, either, even when he’s paired against an unknown Republican candidate.

“Given a choice between Barack Obama and an unnamed Republican, 43 percent of registered voters say they are more likely to vote for Obama and 40 percent are more likely to vote for the Republican,” writes Gallup Poll analyst Lydia Saad.

“This [statistical dead heat] is essentially unchanged from April and February, when voters’ preferences were evenly split,” she says.

It isn’t for lack of trying. Mr. Obama and his White House strategists have been throwing flip-flops at the electorate lately, particularly at independents, who have deserted him in droves, hoping they would soften his ultraliberal, big-spending image.

As gasoline prices have squeezed consumer wallets - flattened might be a better word - the White House announced last week that Mr. Obama was stepping up oil-drilling permits in the Gulf, offshore areas and Alaska’s oil-rich fields.

After two years of steadily rising gas costs, when the president was tirelessly promoting alternative biofuels and the like, he and his advisers suddenly became born-again oil supply-siders and said more was needed to meet growing demand and drive down prices.

Before the switch, however, as gasoline prices were crushing our economy and there was talk of a double-dip recession, the Harvard Law graduate said this was not a job for oil rigs but for the U.S. Justice Department’s lawyers, asking them to investigate the oil companies.

That led to the umpteenth investigation of Big Oil, with Democrats on Capitol Hill grilling a panel of oil company CEOs and getting the same answers they’ve always gotten: “Senators, we need to lift the moratoriums, and licensing delays and drill for more oil.” Duh.

Presto - the White House, with its eyes firmly fixed on the polls, a declining gross-domestic-product growth rate and rising unemployment, is now calling for more drilling.

But then there was the little matter of the federal government’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling that the U.S. Treasury reached and exceeded this week. Republicans who control the House said they weren’t going along with raising the debt limit by an estimated $2 trillion without an agreement to cut spending significantly, possibly by $2 trillion.

Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner played the administration’s scare card, warning that failure to raise the debt limit so the feds can continue borrowing to pay the bills would send the economy into a recession, sandbag the dollar and, for the first time in U.S. history, force America to default on its debts.

Republican leaders responded that a $14-plus trillion mountain of debt, the size of the U.S. economy, was even scarier, that a country that continues to live far beyond its means cannot long endure.

Budget talks between the White House and leaders of Congress were continuing but had reached a stalemate. Polls suggested that this was hurting the president and his re-election prospects more than the Republicans who had won control of the House and made major gains in the Senate on this very issue.

The time had come for Mr. Obama to zigzag. So, last week, in an hourlong White House strategy session with Senate Democratic leaders, Mr. Obama told them not to “draw a line in the sand” during their negotiations, according to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Mr. Obama’s sudden desire to show more flexibility in the debt-ceiling deliberations didn’t mean he was willing to make deeper cuts in his favorite spending programs. It was a political decision - pure and simple.

Americans are fed up with the uninterrupted line of trillion-dollar deficits that have marked his presidency, hitting $1.6 trillion this year alone - increases that economists say will further swell the nation’s public debt by more than $7 trillion over the course of this decade.

But how much flexibility Mr. Obama is willing to show in this budgetary showdown is still a moving target. He continues to attack the GOP for attempting to cut education and infrastructure spending, wanting us to believe that they are the ill-nourished orphans of a Scrooge-like government. Not so.

“Since 2000, Washington has tripled K-12 education and Pell Grant spending. Federal transportation has risen 70 percent faster than inflation. And nearly half this spending growth has occurred in the last two years under Obama,” says Brian Riedl, chief budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

The American people aren’t buying Mr. Obama’s argument that there is little room to make deep discretionary spending cuts. They’ve had to made major cuts in their own family budgets, and they think the federal government should, too.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and former chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.