To date, President Obama’s strategy on ‘fiscal responsibility’ has been to say most of the right things, most of the time, but do as little as possible. This tactic, after all, had long proved a political winner. But as others began stepping up to face the nation’s looming crisis, the backbench approach just appeared weak.
In an attempt to regain fiscal credibility, the president on Wednesday revealed what was advertised as his plan for deficit reduction.
Here’s a quick look at what the president said:
Entitlements: While the president acknowledged the unsustainable path of our largest entitlements, he failed to adequately acknowledge the size or urgency of the problem (Medicare funds will be exhausted in 2029, Social Security in 2037). He also failed to propose adequate reforms, suggesting little more than a future commission for Medicare, and like Republicans, nothing whatsoever for Social Security. Unless Democrats not only acknowledge the extent to which these programs are in trouble, quit demagoguing reform ideas, and actually get on board with ideas of their own to save these critical programs, I’m afraid Republican Chuck Blahous’s recent analysis may be correct: entitlements will be “done in by” the party that so vigorously defended them in the past.
Defense: The president voiced that we need to “eliminate waste and effectiveness” but failed to make a strong case for how the U.S. can “afford” to cut defense while fighting a multi-front war.
This is one area where Democrats have the fiscal high ground, but the president squandered it by proclaiming he wouldn’t call for any specific cuts until a “fundamental review” is completed – date is uncertain.
Taxes: The president suggested his proposal was similar to his Fiscal Commissions plan to reform taxes – which called for lowering rates and expanding the revenue base (as Republicans support), while closing loopholes (as Democrats support). What the president actually proposed was closing loopholes and raising rates. Try getting bipartisan support for that.
In short, the president made reference to all of the necessary spending and tax topics, called for “reform” in many of them, but offered far more details on how, and on whom, he would raise taxes than on how, and on what, he would cut spending.
The most notable focus of the speech was not, in fact, its specific proposals; it was that it sounded far more like the speech of a candidate for president laying out his party’s platform than that of a president laying out a framework for a nation in crisis.
Will the speech excite the Democratic base? Probably. Will it work to convince independents of the president’s commitment to fiscal responsibility? I doubt it. Will it all but eliminate any chance of a compromise this year with Republicans? Absolutely.
A recent Reuters/ Ipsos poll showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans – 69 percent – believe the nation is on the wrong track. Yet the president on Wednesday just gave Americans an amped-up version of the fiscal strategy they’ve already rejected.
If there’s one thing every poll underscores, it’s that Americans want jobs now – and they want to be assured that we’ll have more jobs in the future. Regardless of party, regardless of ideology, Americans instinctively understand that hiking taxes, while Washington continues to pile onto the debt, can’t be good for economic growth.
So what President Obama should have done – if not in his budget, then at least in this speech – is give Americans an honest, if difficult to hear, assessment of our nation’s situation, and most important, a real plan to fix it. He should have laid out exactly what he believes is the right course for getting unsustainable government spending and debt under control, saving key entitlements, and raising revenue without hurting the economy.
Regrettably, the president chose instead to tell Americans not what they needed to hear, but what they wanted to hear: we can keep on spending like we have been because, well, we’re Americans and we deserve it. While that may be a comforting thought, the reality of following such a plan will certainly not be so sweet.
Douglas E. Schoen is a Democratic pollster and strategist. He is the author of “The Political Fix: Changing the Game of American Democracy, From the Grass Roots to the White House.”