Barack Obama has a lot of work to do in tonight’s State of the Union address. He has to go over the heads of recalcitrant Republicans and cowardly Democrats and make a case to the American people on his gun-control measures. He has to do something similar, although it’s not quite as high a hurdle, on immigration reform. He has to make the cases for his defense and intelligence nominees. And more. But job No. 1 seems pretty clear to me: frame the debate about the sequester and the budget. The GOP strategy on this actually stands a chance of fooling a considerable portion of the American public, unless Obama uses tonight’s stage to expose its dishonesty and paint the GOP into a corner with specifics.
The cuts are scheduled to happen, as I’m sure you know, on March 1. Reductions in the amount of $1.2 trillion over the next decade—$500 billion to Defense and $700 billion to domestic programs—would start kicking in on that day. The cuts will be paced as if to play out over a decade, but even so, they’re deep. There will be furloughs, maybe some layoffs, some programs discontinued or put on hiatus.
The Republicans’ position right now is to let this happen, or at least to act like they’re completely ready to let this happen. Charles Krauthammer laid out the strategy last Friday in his Washington Post column. The Republicans, he wrote, should do nothing. That is, Obama has been calling on the GOP to come to the bargaining table and agree on a package of cuts and revenues to substitute for the sequester. The Republicans, he advises, should say no thanks; we’re definitely not giving you any new tax revenue, and if you can’t come up with a set of cuts to replace the sequestration cuts, then we’ll just sit on our hands and let the sequestration cuts kick in, and people will blame you (Obama) because you keep insisting on raising taxes.
So that’s the strategy. If you’ve heard one Republican say this over the last few days, you’ve heard a dozen: We’re done with taxes. He got his taxes at the New Year. No more.
The danger for Obama here is that to people who don’t know the history of this situation, which is obviously most people, that might sound reasonable. No more tax hikes. The public supported the tax increases in the fiscal cliff deal, and public opinion about taxes is definitely more liberal than it was a few years back, but we can hardly be sure that the public’s appetite for tax increases is infinite. So it might be that the Republicans could win this one in the court of public opinion.
Given all that, it seems to me that Obama needs to say two things clearly and forcefully. First, history didn’t begin with the fiscal-cliff deal. During his time in office, he’s agreed to two big budget cuts and a few smaller ones, totaling around $1.8 trillion. He’s pushed for and gotten revenue of about $600 billion. So that’s 3–1, cuts over revenues. The score, in other words, is 1.8 trillion to 600 billion. The Republicans are trying to pretend that the score is 600 billion to zero. Job No. 1 is not letting them get away with that.
Job No. 2 is that he should propose some specific revenue measures. The White House has been cagey about this, and I don’t understand why. It plays into Republican hands because they can just say anything they please about his intentions. He should be specific about what he has in mind—whether it’s lowering the corporate rate but eliminating some loopholes or whatever, tonight is the time to spell it out.
Now when he does that and it raises revenues, the Republicans are going to yell, “But tax reform is supposed to be revenue neutral!” Who says so? Well, Charles Krauthammer says so. He invokes the Bowles-Simpson commission by way of saying so, perhaps forgetting that the Bowles-Simpson framework would produce up to $2.7 trillion in revenue (or at the very least $1.2 trillion, depending on what you measure it against).
Last time, in the fiscal cliff deal, the public was clearly with Obama. The big question here is, will they be this time? I think so. I think most people don’t want the kinds of cuts to domestic programs that the Republicans are for. So I think most people will back Obama’s position, provided he gives them the context and provided it’s clear to them what his position is.
One thing Obama has working in his favor is that it’s the Republicans who appear willing to burn the house down. When people are looking for someone to blame for a fire, their suspicions are likely to gravitate toward the people who’ve been walking around for three years carrying a jug of gasoline and a book of matches. Most Americans know who that is.