Obama deftly plays debt card
April 20, 2011
Honey, we shrunk the government … at least it is on our wish lists, crowed President Barack Obama and Rep. Paul Ryan last week.
They both embraced similar goals of reducing the debt and the deficits. GOP/Ryan plan would cut government spending by $5.8 trillion over 10 years while Obama’s plan would reduce government spending by $4.6 trillion over 12 years.
Neither would eliminate the $7 trillion deficit projected over the next decade caused by spending more than the government is taking in, and both would still necessitate borrowing and increasing debt to make up the difference.
Progressives were wondering if Obama had swallowed tea served by the GOP when he signed on to shrinking government. They should not have been surprised. In May 2009 the president made it clear he believed the U.S. debt was unsustainable.
While the Democratic left wing grumbled, the president threw them meaty bones they could believe in: substantive cuts in defense spending, continued support of education and environment, and proposing to raise one dollar of taxes on the rich for every three dollars of cuts. The GOP dug themselves deeper into the fox hole of no new taxes and more tax breaks for the rich.
Why then did Obama only begin to prioritize debt/deficit reduction now? He said he waited until he felt the economy had recovered sufficiently from the Great Recession to tolerate a cut in government spending. There was fear until now that drastic cuts made too quickly would hurt U.S. economic growth.
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Growing the economy (measured as gross domestic product, aka GDP) is one of the keys to making debt and deficits a smaller percentage of the total and less damaging. Obama proposes a lower/slower implementation of cuts as a way to cushion a negative impact. To grow the economy, Ryan relies on reducing taxes on the rich and corporations. Obama looks to investing in infrastructure, education, and alternative energy as a necessity for the U.S. to compete in the world while creating domestic jobs.
The president’s timing of announcing his position on fiscal matters was most likely dictated by a political strategy. The president could be criticized for dithering decision making, but he could not be criticized for not being clever.
Timing was everything. The president presented his plan just before some crucial votes in Congress on raising the debt ceiling and debate on the 2012 budget and just after Ryan presented his proposal. Obama won the chicken wars by waiting until the Tea Party put enough pressure on the GOP to go first to propose deficit reductions, knowing that any proposals were bound to harm the interests of some group of constituents.
Republicans had tried to set a trap to force the president to go first by questioning his leadership abilities, but the looming deadlines forced the Republicans to walk into the trap themselves, force their hand, and throw away the key to the escape hatch, to boot. With all but four House Republicans voting on the record for the Ryan proposal last week, the plan has become more than Ryan’s; it is now the GOP’s. GOP candidates will now have to defend their recorded votes on issues that are potentially unpopular with swing voters, and even with some in the GOP’s own base of middle-agers worried about affording retirement.
Clever, too, was Obama’s strategy to take some large issues off the table: Less in play is the “whether” issue because there is some degree of agreement that the debt, deficits, and government spending and entitlements need to be cut. This clears the deck for campaigns to focus on the “how” and “what” red hot buttons such as tax policy fairness and privatization of Medicare. Republicans will now be forced to play on the Democrats’ turf defending some proposals that polls show are not popular.
The president may also have laid to rest questions about his leadership style since “clever is as clever does.”
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