Tough choices need to be made, but who will do it?
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President Obama’s newly released budget avoids any offer to fix the long-term, structural deficits that his fiscal commission put on the table, and in doing so confronts his Republican critics with a choice: take the lead (and the heat) for proposing entitlement cuts or admit to your followers that you can’t meet your own long-term spending targets. After sending mixed signals for a few days, Republican leaders have decided to take the lead and hope for the best.
While Republicans have not decided on the details, it is now more likely that their FY2012 budget proposal will include substantial long-term cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. (Whether it embraces a Medicare voucher plan and the partial privatization of Social Security—two of many proposals that have made Ryan’s “roadmap” such a lightning rod—is another question.) The conventional wisdom is that the president has made a smart tactical choice and that Republicans will end up inflicting political pain on themselves, without even the solace of policy gain. And there’s certainly no shortage of data to support this proposition: In survey after survey in recent months, Americans say they want the government to spend less—without cutting anything of significance.
But now there are signs that attitudes may be shifting. A Pew survey out last week found that, for nearly every issue area where trend data are available, “either support for increased spending has fallen or support for spending cuts has grown (or both).” Elected officials seem to be responding. Serious bipartisan talks are underway in the Senate to follow up on the recommendations of the president’s fiscal commission. A shrewd political observer and senior Democratic leader, New York’s Senator Charles Schumer, remarked that “the feeling to do genuine deficit reduction is greater on both sides of the aisle than I’ve ever seen it.” He added that the task is “meeting in the middle and throwing away the ideological baggage.” And, in his February 15 press conference, President Obama offered his clearest indication so far that he is willing to enter into serious negotiations despite omitting entitlement reforms from his budget.
If there is indeed a shift taking place, it will be a long-overdue development. Our current approach to spending reflects many years of misrule by political leaders who have defaulted on their duty to speak directly and honestly to the people they represent.