Today has seen several columns from frustrated pundits who want President Obama to "lead" Republicans to a deal on the automatic spending cuts scheduled for next month (i.e. "the sequester). The cuts, if implemented, will cause a huge slowdown in economic growth, and throw the federal government into disarray.
Pace the recent column from David Brooks, the president has offered a deal on the sequester. It's a "balanced" package that achieves $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction through savings, spending cuts, and tax increases. The only obstacle is the Republican Party, which refuses to accept any new taxes. Some pundits, like National Journal's Ron Fournier, insist GOP intransigence is the product of poor "leadership." If Obama would lead, the argument goes, Republicans would fall in line. But it's not leadership to accede to unreasonable demands, in this case, a short-term austerity package of immediate spending cuts. Imagine a child who demanded a dinner of candy in return for doing her homework. Would we praise a parent for giving in? Of course not. The same is true of the current political situation.
There's something else missing in this conversation. The overriding assumption of Beltway pundits is that we have a pox on both sides. But this isn't true. Remember, Barack Obama is a genuine deficit hawk.
Yes, his term began with a huge infusion of spending. But that's a consequence of the economic collapse; in the absence of a rapidly contracting economy (shedding more than 700,000 jobs a month), the administration would have no reason to craft an $800 billion stimulus package. Moreover, deficit spending is the right thing to do during economic contractions. Conservatives like to point to the accumulated national debt as evidence of Obama's fiscal irresponsibility, but even that's misleading—the large majority of our new debt comes from lost economic output, as a result of the recession, and policies that predate the Obama administration. Considered on its own, the Obama White House has been far from wasteful.
You might even say Obama has been too focused on restraint. Recall his initial argument for the Affordable Care Act. It wasn't that comprehensive health care reform would patch the social safety net or provide the vulnerable. No, reform would bend the curve of health spending and position the United States for long-term fiscal balance. A necessary goal? Yes. An inspiring one? Not at all. But it was par for the course, as far as Obama's commitment to reducing long-term debt.
Just a year after signing the Affordable Care Act, for instance, Obama would propose a "grand bargain" of deficit reduction to John Boehner, on terms favorable to Republicans. He would offer substantive Medicare cuts and reductions in social spending in return for just a little new revenue. Republicans rejected this offer, but Obama would make another one—after the election—that offered a reduction in Social Security benefits for higher tax revenues. In short, whenever the opportunity has presented itself, Obama has tried to cut entitlement spending and—again—position the United States for long-term fiscal balance.
Now, it's worth noting the many "to be sures." These moves have infuriated the president's liberal base, which sees mass unemployment as the nation's key policy challenge. Liberal want the administration to focus on putting people back to work. More jobs and more growth, they say, will reduce the deficit on its own. Conservatives, on the other hand, are either bearish on Obama's plans—it's assumed the Affordable Care Act will become far more expensive than the ticket price—or skeptical he's concerned with deficits at all.
Still, given his rhetoric—which is focused, perhaps overly so, on fiscal balance—and his policies, it's hard to portray Obama as unconcerned with deficit reduction. But that's exactly what we're seeing with "centrist" pundits, who prefer false blame to agreeing with one party over another.
I don't think this dynamic will change, and if I were in the White House, I would use it as an opportunity to place deficit reduction on the back-burner. If Republicans won't cooperate, and if pundits won't give you credit for your actions, then why bother? But, as I said before, Obama has a sincere (and unfortunate) commitment to reducing the debt. And since Republicans refuse to agree to new taxes, this two-step will continue, with Beltway pundits on the side, misleading the public in their ongoing attempt to avoid "partisanship."
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