Four times in the past three weeks, President Barack Obama has gone to the national media in order to warn about an oncoming fiscal catastrophe if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling by August 2. The fourth appearance, on Tuesday, was at the daily White House press briefing, where Obama refused to take questions from reporters. Instead, Press Secretary Jay Carney had to provide the answer to the same questions that the White House correspondents have asked at all three previous press conferences — where is Obama's deficit plan?
The president has long positioned himself as the "adult in the room" on deficits, but his leadership has been singularly lacking. Over a year ago, Obama launched the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform to find a set of policies that would reduce deficits and stabilize the federal government's financial standing. The panel of eight Republicans and ten Democrats, chaired by former Sen. Alan Simpson and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, met throughout 2010 as spending and debt issues became the key to the midterm elections. In December, the panel presented its findings to the White House, and later to the nation on the commission website.
Obama wants to define leadership as somehow not leading or taking any kind of political risks.
The Simpson-Bowles plan didn't make too many people happy. It cut into entitlements, raised taxes, and didn't deliver a deficit-free path. But it did reduce deficits, and its reliance on tax reform for improving revenue streams dovetailed nicely with the president's rhetoric. The panel gave Obama plenty of political cover to offer some tough medicine for both parties to swallow.
Did Obama adopt the Simpson-Bowles plan for his next budget? Not at all. Instead, Obama thanked the commission and turned out a $3.729 trillion turkey of a budget proposal in February that got roundly criticized by both Democrats and Republicans.
Obama modified his proposal in April with an entirely different plan to reduce deficit spending than the one offered by Simpson-Bowles, and only after Rep. Paul Ryan's long-term budget plan had been introduced to the House. Unlike the commission's proposal, however, Obama calculated his savings over a 12-year period. Unlike Ryan's plan, it relied mainly on tax increases and a hyperactive Independent Payment Advisory Board in Obama's health-care system to reduce Medicare costs by regulatory fiat, as well as Pollyannish predictions of future economic growth. The Senate rejected Ryan's plan with a 57-40 vote — and unanimously refused to consider Obama's budget proposal. And well they should, because the CBO scored the Obama proposals, and discovered that they actually made the problem worse than the present trajectory, as their chart shows:
The president has not offered any specific plans since for the budget or to control the deficit. The Democrat-controlled Senate hasn't passed a budget plan of its own in more than 800 days. In the vacuum, Republicans have offered a variety of proposals, including:
• The Ryan plan, passed by the House
• The Cut, Cap and Balance Act
• The McConnell plan
• The Coburn plan
The last plan was especially interesting, if academic; Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) admitted that it had no chance of passage when he presented it. It shaved $9 trillion dollars from federal deficits over the next ten years, eliminated the departments of Commerce and Education, along with 200 federal programs, and — like Simpson-Bowles — raised revenues through tax reform, not a terribly popular direction to go for a conservative Republican. Instead of pushing his plan, however, Coburn almost immediately rejoined the Gang of 6 for yet another plan to deal with the debt ceiling and deficits, that follows the broad direction of Simpson-Bowles for an overall deficit reduction of $3.7 trillion over ten years.
Republicans have now presented four different, specific plans (and passed one in the House), and took part in the Gang of 6 proposal — which the Democratic leadership in the Senate now says won't be ready for the August 2 debt-ceiling deadline anyway. Democrats in the Senate otherwise have offered nothing for the crisis, despite having control of the chamber. In his three press conferences, Obama repeatedly refused to provide detailed answers for the crisis, talking only about process.
That brings us back to Tuesday's briefing. After Obama left, ABC's Jake Tapper asked Carney when the president would lead by presenting his own plan to deal with the crisis for which Obama himself keeps raising the alarm. Carney then offered what seems to be the White House definition of leadership: "Leadership is not proposing a plan for the sake of having it voted up or down."
Obama wants to define leadership as somehow not leading or taking any kind of political risks. Meanwhile, Republicans have offered an array of approaches to the issue, and have done so for months, while Democrats take the same approach to the debt and deficit issue in 2011 that they did for the FY2011 budget in 2010. Leadership may not entirely be about proposing plans for an up-or-down vote, but it almost always involves doing just that as a basic prerequisite. Obama and Democrats have abdicated leadership, while Republicans have had to govern in their retreat.