The Left, The Debt And The Dish

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OBAMASTITCHESAndrewHarar:Pool:Getty

I sense a parting of the ways emerging between the Dish and most of our pro-Obama liberal friends. The president's proposal for a federal pay freeze seems to me to be a minor but symbolically important sign of the president's concern with the unsustainable debt. What alone worries me about it is the danger of replying to GOP small-bore measures and gimmicks with small-bore measures and gimmicks. In that game the GOP will, despite their appalling record on spending, stay ahead.

In my view, what Obama needs to do in the State of the Union is to leap-frog the GOP's piddling nips and tucks and refusal to sunset the fiscally disastrous Bush tax cuts - and present a real vision of a return to responsibility. (Rich Lowry, by the way, predicts this.) Maybe the spending/tax mix of the Bowles-Simpson proposal is too tilted to the right for him to endorse its gist in full (although I sure wish he would). But a clear, detailed plan to end long-term debt now - and a challenge to both parties to get it done - would, in one swoop, put Obama back where he belongs and where the GOP truly fear him, as a serious president trying to move the ship of state back from the looming iceberg of default. 

So far, the left is reacting with dismal hostility even to this tiny measure. Ezra Klein is the least negative, providing three interpretations of the federal worker pay freeze – one positive, two negative. Bernstein thinks the freeze will backfire politically, and adds this Cheneyesque remark:

Hardly anyone actually cares about budget deficits, and one group of peoplefederal employees (and their families, and perhaps their friends) do care intensely about federal employee pay.

John Sides suggests a pathetic alternative for the president: giving up his salary and asking every other congressperson to do the same. Seriously? Sargent is underwhelmed. Adam Sorensen worries about federal job recruitment. Some left-liberal anti-debt measures do not trouble me too much: a hefty tax on Wall Street would be fine by me, for example, and obviously Obama is going to have to incorporate some more liberal debt-reduction measures. But it is clear to me that the only debt plan that can fly is one where the spending cuts-tax hike mix is at least 2 - 1. Much of that has to come from Medicare. And a great deal could be won by eliminating tax loopholes, while not lowering overall tax rates quite as much as Bowles-Simpson.

I know many want Obama to become a liberal partisan firebrand to defeat the crazed Tea Party rhetoric. I reiterate my view that this would be a terrible mistake, and a massive over-reading of the mid-terms. Obama has to recapture those in the middle, especially Independents (like yours truly) who really do want to see a grown-up in Washington offer a serious plan for eliminating the long-term debt. If Obama can do that - and fight for it more aggressively and specifically than he did for health insurance reform - a slowly reviving economy, bolstered by more long-term confidence, will win him a landslide (and save the country's economic future too).

(Photo: Andrew Harar/Pool/Getty.)

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