The central dilemma of President Obama's approach to the deficit is that he wants a bipartisan solution without letting the goalposts be moved. The endpoint is a deal with Republicans to reduce spending and raise revenue, but adopting a bipartisan plan as his own would reframe a previously centrist idea as a democratic plan, meaning that any outcome would be a compromise between something like Bowles-Simpson and Paul Ryan's dystopian vision of social Darwinism. He wanted the be the umpire of the debate, not a participant in it.
In his budget speech today, Obama attempted to square the circle in two ways. First, he nodded at the Bowles-Simpson approach without endorsing it explicitly or in detail. This turns it into an approach whose basic contours he can ultimately support, but not a negotiating position. And second, he beat Ryan and the Republicans to a bloody pulp.
This latter part was the most interesting portion of Obama's speech. He expressed moral outrage in a way I've never heard him do before, and in a way I didn't think he was capable of. After his spokesmen have feebly pawed at Ryan's plan for lacking "balance," it was jolting to hear Obama lambaste Ryan with language like this:
I will not allow Medicare to become a voucher program that leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry, with a shrinking benefit to pay for rising costs. I will not tell families with children who have disabilities that they have to fend for themselves.
This attack, by the way, is completely fair. Moreover, Obama made the crucial step of attacking Republicans for doing these things while cutting taxes for the rich. It's impossible to overstate just how commanding a position Obama holds here with regard to public opinion. People overwhelmingly favor higher taxes on the rich. They even more overwhelmingly oppose cutting Medicare. The Republican plan to impose deep Medicare cuts in order to free up room to cut taxes for the rich is ridiculously, off-the-charts unpopular. If Republicans want to take this position, Obama has to make them pay dearly.
The most important line in Obama speech was his explanation that Republicans forced him to extend upper-bracket tax cuts, but "I refuse to renew them again." That's the line in the sand I've been looking for.
The weakness in Obama speech was his call for a bipartisan deal on the deficit. One might wonder: If the Republicans are determined to undertake such monstrous policies, how can he find common ground with them?
The Republican approach has been to embrace such radical proposals that they pull the terms of the debate rightward, making the unthinkable thinkable. The weakness of this approach is that it forces the party to adopt wildly unpopular positions. And not just wildly unpopular because they're "bold." Wildly unpopular because, as Obama explained, they benefit the rich and powerful and victimize the powerless, and they violate Americans' basic sense of civic obligation. They only way to force Republicans to abandon their maximalism is to force them to pay a price for their extremism. Today's speech may or may not result in a budget deal--I still prefer for Obama to wait until the Bush tax cuts expire--but it was an important step in that direction.