Brace yourself. In coming weeks you’ll hear there’s no serious alternative to cutting Social Security and Medicare, raising taxes on the middle class, and decimating what’s left of the federal government’s discretionary spending on everything from education and job training to highways and basic research.
“We” must make these sacrifices, it will be said, in order to deal with our mushrooming budget deficit and cumulative debt.
A week before his inaugural, President Obama says he won’t negotiate with Republicans over raising the debt limit.
At an unexpected news conference on Monday he said he won’t trade cuts in government spending in exchange for raising the borrowing limit.
“If the goal is to make sure that we are being responsible about our debt and our deficit - if that’s the conversation we’re having, I’m happy to have that conversation,” Obama said. “What I will not do is to have that negotiation with a gun at the head of the American people.”
Anyone who thinks congressional Republicans will roll over on the debt ceiling or gun control or other pending hot-button issues hasn’t been paying attention.
But the President can use certain tools that come with his office—responsibilities enshrined in the Constitution and in his capacity as the nation’s chief law-enforcer—to achieve some of his objectives.
On the debt ceiling, for example, he might pay the nation’s creditors regardless of any vote on the debt ceiling—based on the the Fourteenth Amendment’s explicit directive (in Section 4) that “the validity of the public debt of the United States … shall not be questioned.”
“It’s not all I would have liked,” says Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, speaking of the deal on the fiscal cliff, “so on to the debt ceiling.”
The battle over the fiscal cliff was only a prelude to the coming battle over raising the debt ceiling—a battle that will likely continue through early March, when the Treasury runs out of tricks to avoid a default on the nation’s debt.
The White House’s and Democrats’ single biggest failure in the cliff negotiations was not getting Republicans’ agreement to raise the debt ceiling.
The last time the debt ceiling had to be raised, in 2011, Republicans demanded major cuts in programs for the poor as well as Medicare and Social Security.
The deal emerging from the Senate on the fiscal cliff is a lousy one. Let me count the ways:
1. Republicans haven’t conceded anything on the debt ceiling, so over the next two months—as the Treasury runs out of tricks to avoid a default—Republicans are likely to do exactly what they did before, which is to hold their votes on raising the debt ceiling hostage to major cuts in programs for the poor and in Medicare and Social Security.
Why is the president back to making premature and unnecessary concessions to Republicans? Two central issues in the 2012 presidential election were whether the Bush tax cuts should be ended for people earning over $250,000, and whether Social Security and Medicare should be protected from future budget cuts. The president said yes to both. Republicans said no. Obama won.
Washington has a way of focusing the nation’s attention on tactical games. We almost never get to debate or even discuss the big problems because the tactical games overwhelm everything else. The debate over the fiscal cliff, for example, is really about tactical maneuvers preceding a negotiation about how best to reduce the federal budget deficit. This, in turn, is a fragment of a bigger debate over whether we should be embracing austerity economics and reducing the budget deficit in the next few years or, alternatively, using public spending and investing to grow the economy and increase the number of jobs.
The “fiscal cliff” is a metaphor for a government that no longer responds to the biggest challenges we face because it’s paralyzed by intransigent Republicans, obsessed by the federal budget deficit, and overwhelmed by big money from corporations, Wall Street, and billionaires.
If we had a functional government America would address three “cliffs” posing far larger dangers to us than the fiscal one:
I’m trying to remain optimistic that the president and congressional Democrats will hold their ground over the next month as we approach the so-called “fiscal cliff.”
But leading those negotiations for the White House is outgoing Secretary of Treasury Tim Geithner, whom Monday’s Wall Street Journaldescribed as a “pragmatic deal maker” because of “his long relationship with former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, for whom balancing the budget was a priority over other Democratic touchstones.”
A half century ago America’s largest private-sector employer was General Motors, whose full-time workers earned an average hourly wage of around $50, in today’s dollars, including health and pension benefits.
Today, America’s largest employer is Wal-Mart, whose average employee earns $8.81 an hour. A third of Wal-Mart’s employees work less than 28 hours per week and don’t qualify for benefits.
There are many reasons for the difference—including globalization and technological changes that have shrunk employment in American manufacturing while enlarging it in sectors involving personal services, such as retail.
I hope the president starts negotiations over a “grand bargain” for deficit reduction by aiming high. After all, he won the election. If the past four years have proved anything, it’s that the White House should not begin with a compromise.
Assuming the goal is $4 trillion of deficit reduction over the next decade—that’s the consensus of the Simpson-Bowles Commission, the Congressional Budget Office, and most independent analysts—here’s what the president should propose:
When the applause among Democrats and recriminations among Republicans begin to quiet down—probably within the next few days—the President will have to make some big decisions. The biggest is on the economy.
His victory and the pending “fiscal cliff” give him an opportunity to recast the economic debate. Our central challenge, he should say, is not to reduce the budget deficit. It’s to create more good jobs, grow the economy, and widen the circle of prosperity.
The deficit is a problem only in proportion to the overall size of the economy. If the economy grows faster than its current 2 percent annualized rate, the deficit shrinks in proportion. Tax receipts grow, and the deficit becomes more manageable.
Given how little Republicans have to celebrate today, it might be tempting for the more enthusiastic conservatives to sip at least a little champagne over gubernatorial dominance. While races for the top state job in Montana and Washington remain too close to call, Republicans successfully captured North Carolina’s governor’s mansion. That means of the 50 state governors, at least 30 will be Republicans next year; only 18 will be Democrats. It’s a remarkably high number—but it sure ain’t as high as the Grand Old Party was hoping.
Robert Reich is a founding editor of The American Prospect, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, and was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written thirteen books, including the best sellers Aftershock and The Work of Nations. His latest, Beyond Outrage, is now out in paperback. He is also chairman of Common Cause.