The Curious Case for Cutting Entitlements

Illustration for article titled The Curious Case for Cutting Entitlements

In a Friday press conference on the debt ceiling, his third in three weeks, President Obama continued to push for a "big deal" that includes both cuts in domestic spending and tax-revenue increases. With Republican leaders refusing to make concessions on ending tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, desiring spending cuts alone, talks had appeared hopelessly deadlocked — until Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) put forth another option to potentially table the whole mess. McConnell's plan would authorize the president to increase the debt limit, in three separate increments, without substantial budget cuts. But the president is against that idea, too.


"During the course of these discussions with congressional leaders, what I've tried to emphasize is we have a unique opportunity to do something big," Obama said, explaining his preferred approach of raising the debt ceiling while also addressing the underlying deficit issue in a balanced way. "We have a chance to stabilize America's finances for a decade, for 15 years, or 20 years, if we're willing to seize the moment."

Obama went on to repeat the claims that he outlined a few days before in his Monday press conference: He is prepared to compromise to get this done. His proposed cuts to Medicare and Social Security would not affect current beneficiaries but would modify the programs in a way that makes them stronger for the future. Tax breaks and corporate loopholes for the wealthy are unnecessary, while ending them provides vital revenue. And if the country doesn't pay for its obligations by increasing the debt ceiling, then everybody faces a range of adverse financial consequences.

Eyes on 2012

Aside from the president's "go big" argument against McConnell's plan, it's also likely that he's wary of the political strings attached to the deal. At each of the three times that Obama would be authorized to raise the debt limit on his own, Congress would also be allowed to vote on a "resolution of disapproval" to further distance themselves from the action — a position that might be advantageous during the 2012 election.

Not that the president is above playing politics himself. On Friday he suggested that if Republicans don't budge, he'll be able to use it against them come Election Day. "I think increasingly the American people are going to say to themselves, You know what, if a party or a politician is constantly taking the position, ‘My way or the highway' … then we're going to remember at the polls. The American people aren't paying attention to the details of every aspect of this negotiation, but I think what the American people are paying attention to is who seems to be trying to get something done, and who seems to be just posturing and trying to score political points," he said.

Who Has the Advantage?

The press conference certainly afforded Obama another chance to give his view of the proceedings, but it's less clear whether his strategy of strong-arming Republicans to go big will work. With GOP leaders adamantly against tax increases, and McConnell's proposal, which would at least ward off a defaulting-on-our-loans catastrophe, they don't have much incentive to go for the president's choice.


"The Republicans think they've got the advantage here, and I think they're right," Vincent Hutchings, a professor at the University of Michigan's Center for Political Studies, told The Root. "You can't on the one hand say that the world's going to hell in a hand basket if we don't raise the debt limit, and then on the other hand say that you won't sign any efforts to address it unless we do all these other things that aren't as urgent. If missing the debt=-ceiling deadline is catastrophic, then you will do anything in order to avoid that catastrophe."

Furthermore, Hutchings doesn't understand Obama's insistence on making cuts to entitlements. "I think it is reprehensible," he said. "The shortfall in Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit, and it won't come to a head until 25 years from now. As for Medicare, didn't we just solve the cost issues with the Affordable Care Act? So why exactly are we talking about these now?"


Selling Budget Cuts to Progressives

The president explained that constant debate about the deficit not only takes too much time away from everything else that the government needs to do but is also too often used as an argument to block the government from doing anything else.


"If the only thing we're talking about over the next year, two years, five years, is debt and deficits, then it's very hard to start talking about how do we make investments in community colleges so that our kids are trained, how do we actually rebuild $2 trillion worth of crumbling infrastructure," Obama said.

"If you care about making investments in our kids and making investments in our infrastructure and making investments in basic research, then you should want our fiscal house in order so that every time we propose a new initiative, somebody doesn't just throw up their hands and say, 'Ah, more big spending, more government.' "


It's an interesting perspective, but with just two weeks left to get our fiscal house in order before the debt-ceiling deadline hits on Aug. 2 … time is running out to fully sell the idea to Congress.

Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.