Obama's best next step on the national debt

Nov 26 2010 - 2:28pm

It's been three weeks since the mid-term elections, but neither congressional party seems to have gotten the message.

The Republican congressional leadership rejected President Barack Obama's first invitation for a post-election meeting, citing resentment over how he handled previous meetings and renewing the kind of tit-for-tat partisanship that drives voters nuts.

House Democrats stuck a collective finger into the electorate's eye by re-electing Rep. Nancy Pelosi as their leader, ignoring voters' rejection of her leadership and signaling wariness about possible bipartisan compromises.

Obama's White House, still shell-shocked and uncertain about how to proceed, has reacted more with words than deeds, though it did make clear its interest in compromise regarding the fight over extending the Bush tax cuts.

But one major area -- federal spending and the wide-ranging proposal from the co-chairs of the bipartisan debt control commission -- offers Obama a clear way to show he heard the voters and plans to respond.

Exit polls indicated the top priority of voters is reducing the federal deficit, though the wording of questions around that issue produced ambiguity. And answers on other issues facing Washington were even more ambiguous.

For example, despite Republican claims that voters want them to repeal the president's signature health care plan, exit polls and post-election surveys show opinion split evenly between repeal and retention, or even enhancement. And a clear majority opposes extending the Bush tax cuts for upper-income taxpayers.

As for the 18-member debt commission named by Obama and congressional leaders, it's unlikely any one plan will muster the required 14 votes by next week's deadline.

But the comprehensive plan outlined by its co-chairs, former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and former Clinton White House chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, represents the broad kind of approach Obama should sign onto, even though some specific provisions are -- and probably should be -- non-starters.

To be sure, this would be a major political gamble for Obama. The Nancy Pelosis on the left and the Grover Norquists on the right have already rejected the Simpson-Bowles plan, as have multiple interest groups across the spectrum. The latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll shows a majority of Americans oppose raising the Social Security retirement age, hiking gas taxes, eliminating the home mortgage interest deduction and cutting Medicare, Social Security and defense.

"The things we're asking people to do are not popular," the understated Bowles said at a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor. "The only incentive for elected people doing this is that it has to be done."

Simpson, terming the deficit panel "a suicide mission," said he had no idea if something like this plan could be achieved without a major economic crisis.

But he said next spring's vote to raise the legal ceiling on the national debt might force a political "blood bath" in which those who talk loosely about curbing spending would have to confront the details and show "who's a hero and who's a jerk, who's a charlatan and who's a fakir."

Bowles noted that the much-ballyhooed action curbing spending earmarks would save just $16 billion while untouched earmarks in federal tax laws total more than $1 trillion.

The panel would eliminate most of them, while simplifying the income tax code to three brackets, the highest being 23 percent.

One optimistic note is that their plan has prompted at least two others that deal with the same problem in different ways. But absent a crisis, the key to action is almost certainly Obama.

If he includes a version of their plan in his budget and makes it a centerpiece of his State of the Union speech, critics might accuse him of repeating what they saw as the error of health care, taking on a massive controversial issue on which the country is divided, thus ensuring political grief.

But it also might enable him to define a debate that, sooner or later, has to occur. It would force members of Congress to confront the fact that ending earmarks and trimming a few domestic programs won't do the job.

And it would show voters that Obama heard what they were saying.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via e-mail at: carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.

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