Obama's Best Move

by William Galston | March 30, 2011

Dear Mr. President,

I write as a supporter who understands how full your plate is right now. Three foreign wars, a fragile recovery from the deepest recession in many decades, and stubbornly high unemployment would be enough for any president. Regrettably, some issues present themselves, unbidden and unwelcome, and refuse to go away, leaving presidents no choice but to address them. In my judgment, which is increasingly widely shared—in the U.S. Senate, by the public, and now by a group of former White House economic advisers—our fiscal condition is one such issue.

I hope that you have been briefed on the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis of your FY2012 budget proposal. If so, you will have learned that the situation is surprisingly grim: Your proposal would leave the deficit at or above 4 percent for the next decade and double the debt held by the public from $10.4 trillion to $20.8 trillion, fully 87 percent of our anticipated Gross Domestic Product. Nearly two years ago, you labeled our fiscal trajectory “unsustainable.” You were right, and it still is.

I can understand why you declined to embrace a specific solution for this problem, either in your budget or in your 2011 State of the Union address. Numerous surveys have shown that while the people are alarmed about debt and want reduced spending in principle, they reject most of the specific cuts that would make a difference in practice. A divided Congress still tied up in knots about appropriations for the fiscal year already half over seems in no condition to address much larger long-term issues.

But that said, there are signs that the political context is shifting in ways that create an opening for the adult conversation our country needs. No doubt you are aware that 64 senators—32 Democrats, 32 Republicans—sent you a letter urging you to “engage in a broader discussion about a comprehensive deficit reduction package,” which they defined in terms resembling those of your own fiscal commission’s December 2010 report.

Just last week, a similarly bipartisan group of former chairs of the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA), including your own, Christina Romer, released an open letter calling on you and the Congress to adopt the Bowles-Simpson report as the point of departure for “active” and “intense” negotiations across party lines. Their letter reads, in part:

“There are many issues on which we don’t agree. Yet we find ourselves in remarkable unanimity about the long-term budget deficit: It is a severe threat that calls for serious and prompt attention.”

They warn that if this doesn’t happen, “At some point bond markets are likely to turn on the United States—leading to a crisis that could dwarf 2008.”

There are even signs that the American people are more focused on this issue than they have been since at least 1992, when Ross Perot received an astounding 19 percent of the popular vote after a campaign focused almost exclusively on deficits and debt. A recent Gallup survey showed that while the economy remains the top public concern, the budget deficit is in second place and rising fast. A report out last week from Third Way, which I hope your team is analyzing carefully, summarizes a substantial body of survey research pointing in the same direction.

As we have all learned since your inauguration, you have a strong, internally generated sense of when the time is right to act, and you have little regard for the habitual impatience of official Washington. In many ways your sense of timing has served you well, and the budget deficit may be one of them. The intense polarization of contemporary politics makes it difficult to address issues that would be tough enough in an era of good feeling. By refraining from laying out your own thoughts earlier this year, you created political space for the tentative bipartisanship that has emerged since last year.

I would ask you, however, to consider the possibility that the strategy of delay has already achieved most of what it can and is reaching the end of its shelf-life. It’s hard to imagine what could happen next that could add significantly to the improbable bipartisan consensus that has germinated over the past four months, which included 60 percent of your fiscal commission as well as the 64 Senators and 10 former CEA directors. On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine wavering Democrats saying to themselves, “If the president won’t get involved, why should I?” It’s even easier to imagine Republicans hanging back out of fear that they’re walking into a trap. After all, whoever moves first is taking a big chance. 

As soon as the FY2011 budget fight concludes, Congressman Paul Ryan, the chair of the House Budget Committee, is all but certain to propose an FY2012 budget that addresses major issues outside the narrow ambit of discretionary domestic spending. If that proposal tracks his prior thinking, it will contain many ideas that you and most Democrats (including the author of this letter) will find unacceptable. (And if past Republican reaction to Ryan’s “Roadmap” is any guide, many of them will have cold feet as well.)

However it is received, the publication of Ryan’s proposal is your moment of truth. One option will be to denounce his plan as an assault on seniors and on all that is holy. This is a play that our party knows how to run, and we could probably gain significant yardage if we do. Many outside the White House (and no doubt some inside) will be urging you to do just that. If you do, any chance of progress on basic fiscal issues before next year’s presidential election will vanish. Maybe that’s what you want; I hope not.

Your other option, the road less travelled, is bolder and riskier. You could respond by saying that while Ryan’s proposal is unacceptable, it raises some issues that we must now take up. You could endorse the sentiments that 64 senators and 10 former chairs of the CEA have expressed, and you could declare your willingness to participate in the bipartisan discussions they recommend once the necessary preparatory work has been done. And you could begin the process (which only you can do) of educating the people about not only the dimensions of the fiscal challenge we face, but also its principal causes. The sooner they understand that we can’t regain control of our fiscal destiny by cutting appropriations for foreign aid and NPR, the better.

Mr. President, my generation—which you are said not to admire—had a slogan: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” In this case, I’m afraid, that’s true. For the country’s sake and for your own, I hope you will choose to be part of the solution. Taking the lead in setting us on a sustainable course for the future would be a monumental achievement. It would lay the foundation for our future prosperity and progress, and it would elevate you into the ranks of our truly transformative presidents.

William Galston is a former policy advisor to Bill Clinton and current senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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