After the Budget

Mr. Reasonable's Last Stand

Obama needs to spend his waning days in office giving America some truth medicine, says Michael Tomasky.

Spencer Platt/Getty

With the release of the Obama budget, coming into view now just on the far horizon is an image of how the rest of his time in office might play out. Right now Obama is making what I think and hope is his final offer to Republicans. He has put changes to entitlement programs on the table in a big and visible way. Once they refuse this deal, as I and most people expect they will, then what happens? Right now we’re seeing Obama being moderate, cautious; trying to seem reasonable. But after the rejectionists reject him yet again, I want to see a president who turns the tables on these jokers and uses his remaining time not aiming to meet a group of maniacs halfway, but trying to reframe these conversations entirely for the sake of his legacy and for the sake of future presidents and battles.

What’s going to happen here is the following bleak sequence of events. First the GOP is going to say no no no no no, because Obama’s budget calls for $580 billion in revenue (by the way, it proposes $2 in cuts for every $1 in revenue, for a total of $1.8 trillion in deficit reduction). The sequestration cuts are going to continue. Then will come mid-May, when Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling again. The Republicans will probably extract more cuts there. But as they will never accept more revenue or do anything to give Obama a political victory, we will just keep limping along through this year and into next with Congress funding the operations of government on an ad hoc basis.

Then the election will come. Obama will campaign saying, folks, I’ve tried everything I could to reason with these people, but they won’t settle for half a loaf, or even two thirds of a loaf; they want the whole loaf, and nobody in life gets the whole loaf. They are the problem, and you must throw them out. Give me a Democratic House—it’s the only way we’ll get anything done in the next two years.

The Republicans, having spent five (or by then six) years demanding that Obama cut Social Security, will campaign by ... accusing Obama of wanting to cut Social Security! To pay for Obamacare, they will add, in the belief that that can’t miss. Yes, it would take a pretty big set of onions to be hypocritical enough to do this. John Boehner even praised Obama’s moves on Social Security yesterday, but that wouldn’t stop them. They are the onion people. They’ll say anything. I don’t think it will work, though. By then their transparent hypocrisy should be visible to most voters.

But that doesn’t mean the Democrats will prevail in the midterms. As we know, they probably won’t. History says incumbent parties lose in the sixth year, especially Democrats, whose constituencies don’t turn out in midterms (1998 being the recent exception). So that will leave two more years of ... what?

I’d like to see Obama go out swinging. He will have done pretty much everything a man can do to deal with the Republicans, so by 2015 he should just reverse course completely. Instead of proposing incremental entitlement cuts that he reportedly doesn’t even really believe in, he should start talking about entitlement support—specifically, raising the $113,000 cap on Social Security taxes. A 2010 Congressional Budget Office report shows how some different options for raising the cap to around $200,000 or higher would put the solvency issues off for years. Mark my words: after these efforts at entitlement cuts stall, lifting the cap is going to get its moment in the sun. Obama ought to level with the public at that point and say, look, more people are about to get old; it’s either cuts to benefits or higher taxes to keep the benefits where they are, people. You’re going to need to decide.

The debate about entitlements has been haywire in Washington for years. Yes, preparations need to be made for the retirement of the baby boomers, which has already started. But the conversation has been totally one-sided—it’s only about cuts, not about revenues. Americans vastly prefer raising the cap to cutting benefits: according to a poll earlier this year by the National Academy of Social Insurance, 71 percent of Republicans and 97 percent of Democrats back this option. Experts inside the Beltway don’t prefer this option not on any ideological or principles basis, but because they’d get socked (as would I, which, don’t get me wrong, I’m not wild about, but fairer that I pay more than a pensioner trying to get by on $17,000 a year take a cut).

The budget he just released represents the apotheosis of a kind of Obama, the kind with whom we are familiar—the imperturbable and infinitely patient middle-ground seeker trying to placate those beyond his base. The Republicans have spurned that Obama before, and they’re going to do it this time, too. Going forward, after it’s clear that no deal will be reached this time, Obama owes it to his supporters to get perturbable and impatient on behalf of the Americans counting on him.