If ever President Obama needed a reason to back the recommendations of his fiscal commission, the tax deal he’s just cut with congressional Republicans should be it. Not only will this massive tax bill add hundreds of billions of dollars to the deficit, but it is turning into a political catastrophe for the White House. Obama needs to get on top of the fiscal debate, and the way to do it is to send the commission blueprint (perhaps refined with the best of other deficit and tax reform plans) to Capitol Hill for an up-or-down vote. Here are five reasons why:
He can change the narrative of his presidency: Today, the story is that he is weak, a failure, and a massive disappointment both to his base and to those ‘hope and change” independents who flocked to him two years ago. But it’s hard to say that a president who cuts the Gordian knot of deficits even as he honchos the biggest tax reform in 25 years is a failed wimp.
He can call the GOP’s budget bluff: Republicans killed Democrats in November by selling voters on a wildly inconsistent platform of reducing taxes, opposing cuts in Medicare, and balancing the budget. This is absurd, but most voters didn’t know it. By demanding that GOP lawmakers vote on the fiscal panel’s plan—which trims deficits by both raising taxes and reducing future Medicare spending—Obama would issue a frontal challenge to the Republicans’ budget platform. They’d be forced to either oppose the only deficit reduction plan on the table or finally offer one of their own, thus ending their rhetorical free ride—and perhaps even opening the door to a serious deal. No matter how Republicans play it, Obama will have a chance to get back on offense on fiscal issues.
He can end the debate over the Bush-era tax cuts: Obama and the Democrats can’t escape the vortex of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. Against all odds, they have lost the debate over whether to extend tax cuts for three percent of households at a cost of $700 billion over 10 years—at a time when they still control both houses of Congress. How do you think they’ll do next time this comes up, most likely on the cusp of the 2012 presidential election? The Dems only way out of this mess: Change the subject and start talking about tax reform.
Obama can cut deficits on his terms: At some point soon, the bond market will demand major fiscal restraint. And when the implosion happens, it will be quick and ugly. There is no way to know what the political climate will be when the crisis hits, or who will have the legislative upper hand. While Obama can no longer dictate the terms of deficit reduction, he can still use his formidable clout to make sure that spending cuts and tax increases tilt Democratic and preserve some of his own priorities—such as health reform.
It is the right thing to do: I know, we’re talking about Washington where such an idea seems hopelessly naïve. Still, Obama does have something of a moral responsibility to address the deficit—if only for Sasha and Malia.
The conventional wisdom, of course, is that inflicting the pain offered by Obama’s fiscal commission is political suicide. The public deeply believes in deficit reduction even as it opposes the very spending cuts and tax increases required to achieve that goal. Besides, if the GOP could turn health reform and economic stimulus into massive political liabilities for Obama (even though both bills created far more winners than losers), just imagine what they’ll do with legislation that creates nothing but short-term losers. Besides, say the pundits, Obama would lose his base by proposing major changes in Medicare and Social Security, as well as dozens of other sacred domestic programs.
That is probably all true--unless Obama can rediscover his once-formidable communications skills and use them to sell the importance of fiscal responsibility. While Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell gleefully brags that his goal for the next two years is to defeat the president, Obama can say his is to reform a broken tax system and put America back on a sound fiscal and economic foundation, setting the stage for a new era of growth. It would be quite a contrast: Extreme political hackdom versus something resembling statesmanship. And who knows, it might even work.
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