Within weeks of his workmanlike inaugural address, Barack Obama became a menace to Americans, their constitution and their way of life. Republican leaders called him a European socialist and his legislative agenda a coup d’état. In the countryside, Republicans would run against Washington incumbents, stirring up dark comparisons to Hitler and Stalin. Moderates were told to “man up,” and muskets were waved at rallies.
Extravagant rhetoric persists. The national debt has become an alien thing—a red menace—not a manageable problem, wholly homemade. Yet every wing of opinion—the revivalists, the realists, and the cynics, who make the Republican Party still the best story in politics—has found a new Obama to complain about.
Today, Obama is a shirker—a slick politician during a time that demands bold leadership. On foreign policy, Conservatives pine for a Bismarck. On the deficit, they don’t volunteer a conservative. Amazingly, they just want Obama. His heart may not be pure, but he’s the one who must tell the American public what they must endure to unwind the mess in Washington.
Obama’s moderate cuts and reticence on major reforms in his 2012 Budget have left the Republicans with tremendous room to be creative—to restore the Congress as a true equal. However, Obama is making life extremely uncomfortable for those who genuinely fear—and warned in the November elections—that the US structural deficit must be addressed on a large scale. Reticence may be the best way to crack the partisan impasse in Washington.
Obama presented no specific plan to cut universal programs or to raise significant revenues. However, he has said consistently that both will be necessary, and that a bipartisan package of major reforms should be hammered out. By not giving the opposition a plan to attack—and decisively reject—he’s created a political vacuum that only bipartisanship can fill.
It will soon be very dangerous for Republicans to pile on ever-more extreme spending cuts to only 16 % of the federal budget. (Hasn’t the federal government been in the training business since the agrarian revolution of the 19th century? Hasn’t public support for R & D and the arts helped keep America great?) Also, it will soon be too embarrassing to ask the president for ideas.
It’s not hard to imagine that over the next few months, in twos and then in tens, Democrats and Republicans will start talking about the political virtue—as well as the public value—of a grand bargain.
Conventional wisdom insists that tackling the big items is harder than cutting specific programs. When fundamental change—when trillions of dollars need to be moved around over the next decade—that conventional wisdom is probably wrong. Addressing the problem by making small painful decisions, over and over again, may end up making serious enemies without generating confidence broadly.
A 1% increase in GNP dedicated to financing the federal budget would raise approximately $150 billion dollars annually. Conversely, small percentage changes in universal program expenditures will also generate hundreds of billions of dollars in savings. The trade-off may be this: rather than making countless little decisions to slash individual programs, might it not be better politics to hammer out a package of big changes that could solve the problem?
Once the most partisan Democrats and Republicans stop lying about each other, they might discover that the public—as it has in the past—will go along with modest sacrifices, across the board.