The President’s new budget recapitulates earlier fiscal negotiation strategies, going back to the debt limit fight of 2011, where he proposes bold action on deficit reduction and goes quite far in Republicans’ direction by including cuts to Medicare and Social Security benefits (the chained CPI). The goal now, as then, was to somehow broker the elusive bipartisan Grand Bargain on debt reduction. Based on previous experience, how much payoff can Obama expect to get from the current strategy?
Not much. If history can be a guide, there are three clear lessons from past deficit fights. First, the “adult in the room” theory is a fallacy. That’s the idea that the President, by appearing to be reasonable and willing to make big concessions to his opponents, will gain a commanding political position. But taking the high road didn’t work last time and it won’t work this time either. Back in 2011, the public did indeed perceive Obama as being more willing to compromise and blamed him less than Republicans for the difficulty of reaching an agreement. But his overall approval rating nevertheless plunged as the public got sick of teetering on the brink of disaster while the economy sputtered. In fact, his approval went down the most (16 points) among political independents, supposedly the audience most receptive to the adult in the room act.
Second lesson: Cutting popular programs is unpopular. Last time around, significant cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security made their way made their way into various “Grand Bargain” proposals floated by Obama in negotiations. These were ultimately spurned by Boehner and colleagues, but Obama might not be so lucky this time. Better to avoid the trap by remembering these findings from a July 2011 CNN poll on possible components of a debt ceiling deal. While two-thirds of the public supported, in the abstract, the idea of cutting spending to solve the deficit problem, the public opposed cutting spending on Medicaid by 77–22, cutting Social Security spending by 84–16 and cutting Medicare spending by 87–12. And nothing’s changed since then: in a late March CBS News poll, 80 and 79 percent, respectively, opposed cutting spending on Medicare or Social Security to reduce the budget deficit.
Third lesson: Economic growth is much more important than deficit reduction. Obama, by virtue of his temperament, pressure from elites and, of course, the priorities of Congressional Republicans, will be tempted to privilege debt reduction over economic growth as he reaches for that elusive Grand Bargain. But he should remember that, as far as the public is concerned, you can’t eat Grand Bargains. That is, no matter how much the public says it cares about deficit reduction, ordinary people, unlike elites and their pressure groups like Fix the Debt, care far more about the state of the economy and how it is progressing. That has not changed since 2011: in Democracy Corps’ post-election poll, voters, by a thumping 62–30 margin, said that our biggest priority after the election should be growing the economy, not a plan to reduce the deficit. And just two weeks ago, in a Marist/Morning Joe poll, 62 percent chose creating jobs as the top priority for Congress and Obama, compared to just 35 percent who chose deficit reduction. Note that among independents — supposedly the key group that gets excited about Grand Bargains — sentiment for creating jobs over reducing the deficit was an almost-as-overwhelming 60–36.
These are the lessons of our past deficit battles. Will Obama heed them? Well, he’s already getting the predictable cold shoulder from the Republicans, to be followed shortly by ever-escalating demands for more cuts and increasing public disgust with the whole process. Perhaps some of the truths I’ve outlined here will then start to sink in and he will turn away, as he did in the fall of 2011, from fruitless attempts to reason with the GOP and advocate instead for the policies this country really needs.
That means taking his case to the public. As John Judis recently put it:
When Obama takes an issue to the country, as he did financial reform in the spring of 2010, or as he did during the debate over the fiscal cliff, conservative Republicans complain vociferously that he is degrading the office of the president — forgetting, of course, that Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush campaigned energetically for their policies. And lo and behold, the pressure works. Obama needs to get back out there and fight the budget battle. He has to make clear to the country that the cuts are threatening the recovery, and he has to make clear that what Republicans want to do is make further cuts to Medicare and Social Security. These are popular programs. These are not Solyndra or the Post Office. Obama can win this fight, but he has to get out of the White House and carry it on.
Exactly. We can only hope that the day is not far off when he realizes that this approach, while not without risks, is considerably less risky than trying to strike a Grand Bargain with today’s Republican Party.