How Obama Should Fight Policy, Politics in the Deficit


President Obama isn't doing a very good job making the case that high deficits are not only necessary but desirable now that the economy is producing under capacity. That was the subject of my last post. But I'm already getting some hate mail accusing me of calling trillion-dollar deficits good for the economy, ad infinitum. Not so. Gun to my head, I'd spit out all kinds of ideas for closing the deficit, from repealing the Bush tax cuts to instituting a VAT tax to possibly means-testing Medicare.

One way to fix our deficit crisis, if you live in Washington, DC, is to gather a team of elected officials in a room to brainstorm difficult, unpopular ways to bring down the deficit and then ask both Republicans and Democrats to jump off that cliff together so that neither side gets blamed for the legislation. The problem with a deficit commission today is that a bipartisan congressional panel is a minyan of syllables of search of usefulness. Congress isn't about to produce either serious tax increases or serious entitlement reform, and without both, there is no serious deficit reduction. There certainly won't be any jumping or hand-holding.

Still the Republicans' vote last month on the deficit commission was somewhat breathtaking, and it gives Democrats a window to turn deficit reduction into a political game. Numerous Senate Republicans including majority leader Mitch McConnell had actively and outspokenly supported the Gregg-Conrad deficit commission for months. In May, McConnell said "the best way to address the (deficit) crisis is the Conrad-Gregg proposal." In January he and 32 of his colleagues voted against it. Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt said the vote nearly represented "everything that is wrong with Washington today."

President Obama, whose campaign was once brilliant at feigning breathless indignation every week, skewered Republicans for flip-flopping on the commission with these poison-tipped barbs in yesterday's speech:

Finally, changing spending-as-usual depends on changing politics-as-usual .. I should point out, by the way, that is an idea that had strong bipartisan support, was originally introduced by Senators Gregg on the Republican side and Conrad on the Democratic side; had a lot of Republican cosponsors to the idea. I hope that, despite the fact that it got voted down in the Senate, that both the Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republican Leader in the House John Boehner go ahead and fully embrace what has been a bipartisan idea to get our arms around this budget.

Some barbs! Mitch McConnell just voted down the deficit commission, and his reward is ... another invitation to vote down a deficit commission. Is it so terribly uncouth to point out that the same Republicans who are railing against the deficit just voted down a commission to fix the deficit?

Hitting Republicans back on the deficit commission vote is about politics, but it's also about policy. Obama cannot expect to win the public over to his agenda if he apologizes for his budget and rewards Republican hypocrisy on the deficit with yet another and another offering to a spirit of bipartisanship that so clearly does not exist.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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