Obama, GOP Not Serious About Deficit Deal

by Stuart Rothenberg April 20, 2011 · 9:37 AM EDT

After watching President Barack Obama’s response to Congressional Republicans’ proposals for cutting the federal deficit, it’s awfully hard to credit either side with being serious about finding a viable legislative compromise.

In his speech on fiscal policy at George Washington University on Wednesday, the president talked about the need to reduce the federal deficit by cutting spending and raising taxes, placing most of the blame for the deficit on his predecessor, President George W. Bush.

But Obama used the words “raising taxes” only once in a speech that ran more than 5,700 words. And when he used it, it was in the context of referring to Republicans who argue “we should not even consider ever — ever — raising taxes, even if only on the wealthiest Americans.”

Instead, the president repeatedly used odd and misleading constructions such as “reduce spending in the tax code,” “tax expenditures,” “spending on things like itemized deductions,” “reducing tax expenditures” and “more spending reductions in the tax code” when he talked about the need to raise additional revenue through taxes.

Maybe that is why I was so surprised to see Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. write appreciatively the next day that Obama “was willing to speak plainly about raising taxes.” Plainly? Not unless you come from Planet Bureaucratic Double-Talk.

If the president believes that raising taxes is an important part of the discussion to close the federal deficit — and he and many others certainly do — then shouldn’t we expect him to talk plainly about doing so instead of resorting to euphemisms or political mumbo-jumbo?

When Obama talked about health care and entitlements in his speech, he did so by tossing around platitudes and generalities.

He said he would “build” on the new health care law by reducing “wasteful subsidies and erroneous payments” and by demanding “more efficiency and accountability from Medicaid.” Right about now a red light should be flashing, and a buzzer sounding in your head.

Obama promised to “slow the growth of Medicare costs by strengthening an independent commission ... [that] will look at all the evidence and recommend the best ways to reduce unnecessary spending while protecting access to the services that seniors need.” In other words, he’ll punt.

But his comments about Medicare and Medicaid seemed detailed and complicated compared to his proposals on Social Security. The 98-word paragraph he devoted to Social Security was simply a restatement of the need for bipartisan cooperation to strengthen the program.

The president deserves credit for understanding the seriousness of the deficit and debt threat facing the country, but he hasn’t shown the kind of leadership that presidents need to show. Until he does, it’s hard to believe that he’s serious about addressing the problem.

Congressional Republicans also appreciate the problem, and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has offered a more dramatic, detailed solution.

But many Republicans don’t seem to understand the nature of compromise necessary in a presidential system where power is divided between the two political parties.

Too many Republicans insist that any tax increases are off the table. “Americans are not under-taxed,” they argue, “the government spends too much.”

Maybe that’s true, and maybe it isn’t. But it really doesn’t matter, since that’s not the issue.

The issue is whether most Congressional Republicans understand that ruling out any and all means for generating additional revenue — we call that “raising taxes” on this planet — makes it impossible to arrive at a compromise with Democrats, who have very different views of the role of government and who hold both the Senate and the White House.

For Democrats, raising taxes to produce additional revenue is preferable to many spending cuts.

Whether Republican Members of Congress agree with them is irrelevant. The nature of our system requires legislators to support spending and some policies that they don’t necessarily like. It’s the art of the deal.

For Republicans to refuse to consider an entire strategy for dealing with the deficit and debt precludes any kind of compromise — and any kind of deal, at least until they hold the White House, a House majority and at least 60 seats in the Senate.

Unless they are willing to negotiate with the president and Congressional Democrats, Republicans aren’t serious about attacking the deficit.

I should add that some Congressional Republicans are serious. Senators such as Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), neither of whom are on the 2012 ballot, understand that everything has to be on the table — even alternatives they really don’t like — if they are to have any chance of arriving at an agreement with Democrats.

The president needs to show a lot more leadership and Congressional Republicans need to show a lot more flexibility to tackle this problem.

Only when both the folks on the uncompromising left and the uncompromising right start to scream bloody murder will you know that the two parties are serious about getting the nation back on a firm financial footing.