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. In a joint statement, House Speaker John Boehner and Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan declared, “Our budget will lead where the president has failed, and it will include real entitlement reforms so that we can have a conversation with the American people about the challenges we face and the need to chart a new path to prosperity.”
Laying down such a clear marker makes it difficult to turn back. 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. For too long, one party has pretended that we can stay on our current course without raising taxes, while the other has pretended that we can do so without touching anything people like. In the long run, we can’t have what we’re unwilling to pay for. If we want to continue on our current course, we’ll have to accept much higher levels of taxation. If not, we’ll have to cut spending for popular programs. It’s time for the pretense to end. And maybe—finally—it’s beginning to.
The issue isn’t just the budget; it’s self-government. To have confidence in democracy, we must believe that the people will, over time, respond affirmatively to official candor, even if the news is bleak. Winston Churchill famously proclaimed that “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” The peroration of his great speech is less remembered: “I take up my task in buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail.” He understood that a democratic people will be willing to endure sacrifice, but only if it is necessary to attain a greater good. Granted, a budget deficit—even a massive one—is not the same as a prospective Nazi invasion of the homeland. There is no moral equivalent of war. Still, Americans are worried about the future, perhaps more deeply than the Obama administration understands. A recent Gallup survey found that 52 percent of Americans—up from 39 percent just two years ago—think that China has become the world’s leading economic power. Only 32 percent think that the United States still is. More and more Americans (pluralities in recent surveys) now doubt that their children will live as well as they themselves do now.
In his 2011 State of the Union, Obama spoke of “winning the future.” If the American people are told the truth, they may come to understand that such a victory will require a radical shift of our fiscal course. As soon as Republicans put entitlement reforms on the table, Obama will have to choose whether to defend the status quo or to counter with his own proposal. The superficially safe move would be to do the former, which is what the base of the Democratic Party is demanding. The question is whether a president who prides himself on taking the long view can look beyond the superficial: After all, Americans want their president to be a strong leader, not just a likeable human being. If Obama comes to be seen as someone who follows events rather than leading them, he could end up paying a larger price than his political tacticians now expect.
William Galston is a contributing editor at The New Republic and a current senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.