William Galston with a plea for discussion and education of the public on the budget deficit problem (recent CBO report) that he thinks can only be lead by the President. Aaron has written (correctly) that the 64 Senators asking the President to lead could themselves pass anything they want; Ezra Klein writes persuasively that if the President is for anything, then the Republicans will be against it, so he cannot publicly lead. I understand their points and think they have merit. However, I think the President needs to engage more.
A few months ago I wrote that only the President could lead in the communication of the budget problem, using the Fiscal Commission plan as the outline. Of course, it is politically risky to wade into these waters and both parties have experienced success in recent elections by saying ‘we are not as bad as them’ which I would argue was the primary message of the 2006 and 2010 elections. At this point it looks to me as if that is likely to be the overriding narrative of the 2012 election. The question is whether we can afford to wait until after the next election for the next step on the deficit.
The next election aside, the current budget debate (defund NPR!) is either irrelevant to the actual budget problem facing the nation (health care costs) and/or harmful to the economy. Galston notes that the only way out of endless debates about irrelevant or harmful cuts to domestic spending, and certainly any hope of short term stimulus is to talk about the real long term problems:
If you believe, as I do, that the best approach melds continued short-term fiscal ease with long-term restraint, then moving toward the long-term discussion as soon as possible is essential, for the simple reason that there’s no viable political path to the former that is not linked to the latter.
Next steps on a serious long term plan on the deficit are needed sooner rather than later. I say next steps, because a first step was taken in the last Congress: the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The long term budget deficit is primarily a health care cost problem and the ACA is a step toward addressing this issue (we will need more). The most obvious way to improve the cost saving potential of the law that has bipartisan support is to reform the tax preference of employer paid insurance, which is a core of most Republican health reform alternatives. I believe such a change should appeal to progressives as well since replacing the tax on high cost insurance (delayed until 2018 by the ACA) with a modification of the tax preference is a more progressive policy option. Making the change in 2012 or 2013 would signal seriousness on health care costs and therefore the deficit.
The President should offer this as a modification of the ACA and if rebuffed by opponents of the ACA say simply, the ball is in your court then. The long term budget deficit problem is a health care cost problem. Show us your health reform plan.