Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Obama’s Deficit Reduction Plan: Phase II of a High-Risk but Coherent Strategy

I happened to catch the PBS NewsHour last night for the last part of this segment on Obama's deficit reduction plan. The sound happened to be down on the TV at the time. Even so, I could tell just by looking at the posture and facial expression of the liberal guest, Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, that he was jubilant. He looked like a cat with a bird in his mouth, feathers floating etc:

Philip Swagel
Maybe that was because his conservative opponent was Philip Swagel, a former Assistant Treasury Secretary in the George W. Bush administration, now a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute on a break from his job as an economics professor at the University of Maryland. I had never heard of him in my life; in fact I thought at first that it was Rich Lowry from National Review. That told me a lot as well: The conservative heavy hitters were apparently unavailable to come on the NewsHour to try to argue against the Buffett Rule and so forth.

Rich Lowry
Greenstein is, for my money, the most credible liberal fiscal-policy analyst in D.C. And the guy could barely contain himself with glee. I remember last December when he gave his qualified blessing to Obama's post-midterm-election deal with the House GOP to trade forbearance on raising tax rates on the wealthy for an extension of unemployment benefits and a payroll tax cut. I tweeted the CBPP analysis and linked to it on Facebook, and was obliquely accused by various observers of "cherry-picking" CBPP charts (whatever that means) in order to put a too-sunny face on a bad deal.

But the CBPP seal of approval was really significant to me back in the bleak days of December 2010. Greenstein has a deep understanding of what's politically achievable, he's very well plugged-in to House and Senate Democratic members, leaders, and staff. He's not as flashy as Paul Krugman or Robert Kuttner, but he's done a heck of a lot more than either of them over the last 20 years to get the best possible legislative deals for liberals (which have admittedly been pretty bad deals as pieces of liberal legislation; my point is that K+K are excellent policy analysts but not at all credible as political tacticians).

So as a hopeless Obamaphile, I was sort of jubilant last night too. Because I see Obama's deficit-reduction plan as the execution of Phase II of a high-risk but nevertheless coherent political strategy:

Phase I
  1. Realize that as a Black man, he is constrained in his ability to mount a full-throated "angry," "confrontational" opposition to GOP tactics, many of which ("You lie!" the birth-certificate nonsense etc.) were clearly designed to bait him into a furious response. If you watched the NewsHour video above, you heard Swagel try several times to call Obama "angry."
  2. Wait until the GOP exposes themselves by taking a one-way trip to fiscal-policy crazy town with, for example, the Ryan plan to voucherize Medicare and the debt-ceiling shenanigans, not to mention Rick Perry's statements that "Social Security is a Ponzi scheme" and a "monstrous lie."
Phase II
  1. Unveil a tough and politically powerful deficit reduction plan that places stark choices before voters: Preserve the New Deal largely intact OR keep taxes on hedge fund managers et al. at rates half of what their secretaries pay. But not both.
  2. It wouldn't hurt if this unveiling took place in mid-September, after the August vacation and town-hall season had ended.
Will Phase II of Obama's plan work? Maybe not. But for a conciliator-type president who had a filibuster-proof Congressional majority for less than one year, it was a coherent plan. And he deserves the support of liberals for executing it.

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