Obama's Budget Ducks Tough Choices
President Obama likes to talk about those "Sputnik moments" when the nation rises to difficult challenges like the one posed by the Soviet space program in the 1950s. On Monday, he had a chance to turn his federal budget proposal into his own such moment. He whiffed.
Obama and his aides boasted that the administration's spending plan would shave $1.1 trillion off anticipated deficits over 10 years. For a Democratic president to propose cuts in programs with strong Democratic constituencies is a measure of how the national dialogue on spending has shifted. But, as it happens, $1.1 trillion is the projected deficit for 2012 alone. Talk about insufficient.
If fiscal sanity is to be restored, Americans need to be told the hard facts — not just that the national debt is out of control and that deficits can't go on and on, but that getting the nation's finances in order will require going everywhere in the budget: domestic programs, defense spending and the big entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid that already consume three of every five dollars the government spends. If leaders are to be truly forthright, they'll also have to admit that revenue increases are needed to bring the nation's ability to pay for benefits in line with its appetite for devouring them.
Obama's own fiscal commission laid out exactly such a plan in December that drew a surprising number of bipartisan votes from the panel's braver politicians. But the president has acted as if the plan is radioactive, and on Monday he mostly ignored it.
Discussing their $3.7 trillion spending plan for the next fiscal year, Obama and his budget director, Jacob Lew, said all the right things about wanting to engage with both parties on fixing the long-term budget problem. But when that might occur — if ever — was vague. Lew defended the administration's wait-and-see approach, insisting that history shows that stepping out with a "dramatic plan" has never "actually moved the process forward."
Actually, serious deficit reduction doesn't happen without a president taking risks, whether it was the first President Bush dropping his "no new taxes" pledge in 1990 or President Clinton pushing a major deficit-reduction package in 1993. Both paid a terrible political price, but their courage helped lead to four years of balanced budgets, from 1998 to 2001.
It's becoming hard not to conclude that Obama doesn't much care about the debt threat or has decided to wait until after the 2012 elections. Either would be a shame, and economically risky.
If there's an upside here, it's that a critical mass of public opinion and political pressure, as reflected in the Tea Party movement, is building to support deficit reduction. So far, however, virtually all the debate in Congress has focused on the 13% of spending that goes to non-defense agencies and programs. It's as if the budget were an automobile with a leaky engine and a blown transmission — and the Democrats and Republicans are arguing over the size of the cup holders.
With a few exceptions, such as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, congressional Republicans are pretending that slashing away at one tiny corner of the budget is all that has to be done, are insisting that taxes can never be raised for any reason — and are cynically preparing to savage Obama the instant he embraces the sort of unpopular steps needed to rein in the deficit.
It's understandable, then, that the president isn't eager to lead with his chin. But there are always tempting reasons to put political expedience ahead of tough choices. At some point, the shadowboxing has to stop.