So Was I Wrong About Yesterday?

The chattering class has poured cold water all over Obama’s speech yesterday: nothing new, too long, we’re bored. Dana Milbank has the most stirring and cogent objection:

The falsehood is that he has been serious about cutting government spending. The fallacy is that this election will be some sort of referendum that will break the logjam in Washington.

I agree with Dana that Obama made a huge error in not immediately grasping the Bowles-Simpson commission as his own. I 146344791decision is that private negotiation was better than taking a public stance that would immediately make compromise impossible. If Obama had endorsed Simpson-Bowles, the GOP would have denounced it. But that would simply have given Obama a clear and brutal chance to call the GOP out on their phony fiscal policy. And when push really came to shove, he put politics above “Yes We Can”. Sure, he had partisan base pressure: Bowles-Simpson would slash Medicare more potently than the Democratic party would like, especially in an election year. But what he needs and needed is simplicity and clarity. In that case, his caution was foolish. He’s been living with the consequences ever since. But it remains true that discretionary spending has been modest in this presidency – far more modest than the last one. And Dana is unfair in not pointing out the serious pilot schemes in the ACA to curtail out-of-control healthcare spending. These try to tackle the problem from the source. They cannot replace higher premiums, or means-testing, or Paul Ryan’s more aggressive attempt to restrict what seniors can buy by limiting their vouchers’ value over time. But they are an integral part of the long-term solution, if there is one. Again, the tragedy of our current situation is that both sides have decent ideas to tackle this debt, but polarization has turned the best of both parties’ ideas into the worst of all worlds. As for Dana’s second point, does he not see he is blaming the victim? He does, actually, and rightly places the blame on the GOP:

Obama alleged, correctly, that Republicans’ refusal to countenance tax increases scuttled the Bowles-Simpson plan and the Senate’s Gang of Six plan. He argued, also correctly, that Republicans’ refusal to budge on taxes is “the biggest source of gridlock in Washington today.” He’s on solid ground, too, in saying Republicans would end Medicare as we know it. But none of that is going to help Obama, because he hasn’t come up with a viable alternative.

But his alternative is pretty clear: more investment and stimulus in the short-term and a Grand Bargain with the GOP in the next Congress. He’s betting that his re-election would allow for a better chance at a real deal with Boehner. I have no doubt Obama would love to cut a huge, legacy-making budget deal that would restore long-term confidence, even if it were to alienate part of his base. And his unspoken message is that in a second term, he could make exactly those kinds of deals – because he has just earned a vote of confidence from the people, because he will not be running again, and because the fiscal crisis is now. Taxmageddon will see to that. Dana is wrong to see the logjam as eternal. It simply cannot be without real pain to both parties, or a real fiscal crisis, which was how Obama set up the final negotiation in the last debt ceiling deal.

So in a sense, Obama’s message is what it can only be: we all want to tackle the debt seriously. Within the next six months, let alone four years, we will have to make key decisions or lose control of our fiscal destiny. The question is how will we do it? Would you rather thave those decisions with me at the bargaining table – or leave it entirely to the current Republican party?

When framed like that, I remain convinced that this is a cogent case. And he put it well. He can hone it some more – and should. But the actual choice we now face is either a draconian exercize in budget cutting entirely on the backs of the middle class and poor, exempting the wealthy, or a deal with Obama for a more balanced, less ideological and more inclusive collective sacrifice. Maybe this choice argument will be swamped by pure GOP hazing, mockery and taunting in a terrible economy that could suddenly get worse. But the choice argument is all Obama has. He should not be berated for making it.

(Photo: the president yesterday in Cleveland, Ohio. By Jewel Samad/Getty.)