When President Obama steps to the microphone this afternoon, he’ll be joining the battle over long-term deficit reduction—a move that comes replete with risks and opportunities.
Energized by tea party-sympathetic freshmen, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is touting the long-term plan designed by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
The White House needs to reframe the debate and is hoping to do so in a way that takes a page from former President Clinton’s playbook. During the 1995 and 1996 shutdowns of the federal government, Clinton could claim that he had his own balanced budget plan— but one that differed from that being offered by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., because it preserved Medicare, Medicaid, energy, and the environment, or what was known around the West Wing as “M2, E2.”
Obama wants to show that he has a plan for addressing the nation’s long-term fiscal situation, but that it will preserve Medicare for seniors as well as the investment agenda—green energy, student loans, etc.—that the administration says is essential for long-term economic growth.
White House officials have been careful not to leak details of the speech but some hints are clear. From the podium in the White House Briefing Room, press secretary Jay Carney has repeatedly described the president as taking a “balanced” approach to deficit reduction.
The translation: It will cut less from Medicare and will insist that the Bush tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 annually not only not be made permanent, as Republicans have long hoped, but that they be allowed to expire in two years.
During last year’s lame-duck session, the extension of the cuts was grudgingly accepted by the White House. Now the president will make the point that those taxes need to go up.
In one sense, the president will find himself embracing the approach of his own fiscal commission chaired by Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo.
While the White House did not embrace the report when it was released last year, the president is likely to point to its balanced approach—cutting from entitlements, closing tax loopholes, targeting defense spending—as the kind of no-sacred-cows approach that it, too, is willing to take. The president will use the Ryan plan as a foil.
Leaving aside the politics of the moment, is there any possibility of long-term agreement on debt reduction? It’s doubtful that any kind of grand bargain can be reached in the few weeks before the debt ceiling needs to be raised.
And so we’re likely to have a scramble that makes more cuts in discretionary spending but does little about the long-term deficit, just like last week’s jockeying over the fiscal 2011 spending deal.
It’s unlikely in the extreme that congressional Republicans will ever sign on to an income-tax rate hike. But it’s not crazy to imagine that at some point the two parties can agree on some Medicare reforms, some defense cuts, and some shoring up of tax loopholes. That’s not a comprehensive plan for lowering the federal deficit, but it’s at least a start.
This article appears in the April 13, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.