Obama Steals The Deficit Hawk Mantle

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JONATHAN CHAIT JULY 8, 2011

Obama Steals The Deficit Hawk Mantle

President Obama, as I've argued before, badly bungled by allowing the debt ceiling vote to turn into a hostage crisis which may well exact a horrendous economic toll. But he has clearly turned the politics to his benefit very recently, snatching the mantle of deficit hawk away from the Republicans. One good gauge of his success on that score is to watch Charles Krauthammer rage today:

President Obama assailed the lesser mortals who inhabit Congress for not having seriously dealt with a problem he had not dealt with at all, then scolded Congress for being even less responsible than his own children. They apparently get their homework done on time.

My compliments. But the Republican House did do its homework. It’s called a budget. It passed the House on April 15. The Democratic Senate has produced no budget. Not just this year, but for two years running. As for the schoolmaster in chief, he produced two 2012 budget facsimiles: The first (February) was a farce and the second (April) was empty, dismissed by the CBO as nothing but words untethered to real numbers.

Obama has run disastrous annual deficits of around $1.5 trillion while insisting for months on a “clean” debt-ceiling increase, i.e., with no budget cuts at all. Yet suddenly he now rises to champion major long-term debt reduction, scorning any suggestions of a short-term debt-limit deal as can-kicking.

The flip-flop is transparently political.

Now, obviously as an argument, this is pretty weak. Krauthammer is pulling out every trope used to bash Obama on the deficit the last two years. Obama has run up huge deficits! (Never mind that CBO projected the deficit at well over a trillion dollars before Obama took office.) He attacked poor Paul Ryan! He did not immediately make the Bowles-Simpson plan his negotiating position!

Those arguments did work for many months. But the fact is that the Ryan plan, reflecting right-wing values, stands no chances of passing because Democrats will block it. Krauthammer also repeats the GOP talking point that Democrats have failed to pass a budget that can't pass because Republicans will block it, but it's hard to see the importance of this.

The boring, endlessly-repeated yet true fact is that only way to actually reduce the deficit is to compromise on a plan that offends both parties. And now it's clear that Obama is willing to support a plan like this, and most Republicans are not. The habitual pox-on-both-houses centrist pundits are actually beginning to recognize this fact. Krauthammer desperately wants to invoke the old metrics of seriousness -- which president was in office when the deficit exploded (Obama), which party made the most dramatic futile ideological gesture (Republicans), and which party was meaner to Paul Ryan (Obama!)

But the reality is that none of those things was ever a real indication of willingness to do the things that would lead to a major deficit bill. Now that is finally becoming clear. We don't yet know what substantive toll his negotiating method has extracted, but the political benefit is obvious.

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posted in: jonathan chait, charles krauthammer, congress, senate

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