How Obama Wins the Day and America Gets the Shaft

National Journal

Mark this day down. Remember it as an example of how President Obama deftly positioned himself as both a courageous leader willing to defy his liberal base and a ruthless partisan who won't.

For the pure politics of it, the president's moves Monday explain why Republicans rather than Democrats are likely to be blamed in the short term for ugly budget fights. Taking a longer view, however, Obama must worry about how historians will view days like this if the next president inherits a fiscal mess.

Here's what happened:

First, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, reflecting the sentiment of liberal Democrats, dismissed the fiscal mess in a TV interview. "It's almost a false argument to say we have a spending problem," she told Fox News Sunday.

Recognizing that Pelosi put Democrats at odds with public polls showing a majority of Americans worried about the debt and deficit, White House press secretary Jay Carney undercut her on Monday. "Of course, the president believes that we have a spending problem," he said.

Score one for courage.

In the same briefing, Carney said that Obama would not support increasing the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67 as a way to reduce spending. This about-face is the political equivalent of Obama taking his ball and going home midway through a playground game.

Previously, the president had floated the idea of raising the eligibility age as part of a "grand bargain" with House Republicans that would include spending cuts as well as tax increases to reduce the deficit. Serious Democratic leaders such as former Democratic National Committee Chairman Ed Rendell have urged Obama to make this and other concessions to balance the nation's books.

Why the reversal? The White House says that House Speaker John Boehner could not convince conservative GOP lawmakers to back a compromise with Obama that would raise taxes, scuttling the "grand bargain" and thus making Obama's previous offers on Medicare moot.

Since the collapse of the secret Obama-Boehner conversations, the White House has not included the Medicare issue as part of its public offers to the GOP.

What is really going on here? It's classic tit-for-tat. The House GOP has staked out an obstructionist no-compromise position with Obama, particularly on taxes. The president has responded by taking one of the least onerous entitlement reforms off the table.

Score one for ruthless cynicism.

Only in Washington do two wrongs make you right. While failing so far to use the immense power of his office to broker a historic budget deal, Obama can argue with a straight face that Republicans are less willing to compromise than Democrats. He has the upper hand politically.

To his credit, Obama still is open to changing the Social Security formula used to calculate benefits, known as chained CPI. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the net result of the change would be a 3 percent lifetime benefit reduction when measured against current projected growth.

Unfortunately, the cost of war and neglect requires sacrifice from most Americans to tame the debt -- in the form of both tax increases and reduced benefits.

Republicans refuse to raise taxes. The president's liberal allies object to any reductions in entitlements, including Social Security.

As Lori Montgomery reports in the Washington Post, the White House seems to think the deficit problem is nearly licked. Read her story here to see why that is such a dangerous conceit.

So if you're scoring today at home: That's 2 political points for Obama, 1 for his liberal base, and zero for the GOP. The rest of America gets the shaft.