Tom Friedman makes his usual contribution (i.e. none) to the national debate:
I voted for Barack Obama, and I don’t want my money back. He’s never gotten the credit he deserves for bringing the economy he inherited back from the brink of a depression. He’s fought the war on terrorism in a smart and effective way. He’s making health care possible for millions of Americans with pre-existing conditions, and he saved the auto industry. This is big stuff. But, as important as all of these achievements are, they pale in comparison to the defining challenge of Obama’s presidency: Can he put the country on a sustainable economic recovery path at a time when, if we fail, it could be the end of the American dream?
I believe the best way for Obama to do that is by declaring today that he made a mistake in spurning his own deficit reduction commission, chaired by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, and is now adopting Simpson-Bowles — which already has Republican and Democratic support — as his long-term fiscal plan to be phased in after a near-term stimulus. If he did that, he would win politically and create a national consensus that would trump his opponents, right and left. […]
Obama aides argue that so many G.O.P. lawmakers are committed to making his presidency fail, or have signed pledges to an antitax cult, that they would never buy into any grand bargain. I think that is true for a lot of Republicans in Congress. But I have some questions: Why are the Republicans getting away with this?
[Perhaps because you don’t call them out on it, and insist it’s Obama’s fault that they don’t accept the ludicrously-tilted deals in their favor that he keeps offering? No?]
I think America’s broad center understands very clearly that the country is in trouble and that the Republican Party has gone nuts. But when they look at Obama on the deficit, they feel something is missing. People know leadership when they see it — when they see someone taking a political risk, not just talking about doing so, not just saying, “I’ll jump if the other guy jumps.” In times of crisis, leaders jump first, lay out what truly needs to be done to fix the problem, not just to win re-election, and by doing so earn the right to demand that others do the same.
What would it look like if the president was offering such leadership? First, he’d be proposing a deficit-cutting plan that matches the scale of our problem — one with substantial tax reform and revenue increases, a gasoline tax, deep defense cuts and cutbacks to both Social Security and Medicare. That is the Simpson-Bowles plan, and it should be Obama’s new starting point for negotiations. The deficit plan Obama put out last September is nowhere near as serious. “It is watered-down Simpson-Bowles,” said MacGuineas. “Most people don’t even know it exists.”
I found this column irritating, so I decided to contact Tom Friedman* and we enjoyed a nice, leisurely chat:
Tom: Hey, what’s up?
Lev: I read your article.
Tom: Yeah? Good one, I think.
Lev: Not one of your best efforts, I think. I’m a little confused.
Tom: Really? I thought it was right up there with The World Is Flat.
Lev: I don’t know about that. I thought it reflected a pretty poor grasp of the political situation, actually.
Tom: How so?
Lev: Well, you outright assert that you want to see President Obama take a public stand in favor of the Simpson-Bowles plan, and you also insist that you want to see Simpson-Bowles passed into law.
Lev: Well, hasn’t the attitude of the Republican Party been to basically just reject anything proposed by Obama out of hand?
Tom: Now, that’s just ridiculous. Republicans truly do care about the deficit, and they like Simpson-Bowles. Didn’t you read Ezra Klein’s piece on this last week?
Lev: Indeed I did, Tom. Indeed I did. Surely this sentence didn’t escape your notice: “For one thing, compromising with Obama is compromising with a Democratic president who’s at 44 percent in the polls and at 9 percent among Republicans. No Republican politician can survive that.”
Lev: And your colleague Ruth Marcus over at the Post makes a convincing point that Obama isn’t the problem, and basically that people trying to work on these things have continually asked him not to get involved, so as to avoid turning these things into partisan struggles.
Tom: But doesn’t a president have to lead the country? To use the bully pulpit to advance important causes?
Lev: Yeah, you said that in your piece. It’s sort of ironic that you’re using one of the pervasive critiques of Obama from the left to hit him from the right.
Tom: I’m quite a contortionist, eh?
Lev: You’re also pretty confusing about this. Who is Obama supposed to lead? He has some influence among some Democrats (though not all, as the first two years of his presidency abundantly proved). Perhaps he can use that to make Simpson-Bowles more popular on the Democratic side, sure. But this doesn’t negate the fact that every move Obama makes in support of this thing becomes one move that Republicans make away from it. This dynamic has played out again and again. The Tea Party sees Obama in starkly negative terms, and they simply will not brook any agreement with him. If he likes something, they’re bound to hate it.
Tom: But they are obsessed with cutting the deficit!
Lev: Cutting spending, Tom. These are different things.
Tom: They’re close!
Lev: Related, yes. But there’s more to it than that.
Tom: That’s why I support Simpson-Bowles. It cuts domestic spending, it cuts defense spending, it raises taxes by a bit, and clears some stimulus for now. It does it all!
Lev: Yes, it does those things. I don’t like everything it does, like raising the retirement age to 67. Such a dumb idea could only originate in a legislative body where a person’s mid-60s are considered the prime of their career. But it does some smart things too. You’re right, it might be a decent place to start negotiating.
Tom: And yet I sense some reticence on your part.
Lev: I feel this is all a waste of time. Republicans deliberately tanked the supercommittee’s negotiations on antitax grounds. They have signaled an intention to try to cut back on the cuts they agreed to in the debt ceiling deal. This indicates a complete lack of seriousness on the issue.
Tom: If that’s true, they’ll pay a political price for it.
Lev: Not so long as you and your ilk blame both sides every time this stuff fails.
Tom: But they are both responsible! They didn’t agree!
Lev: Calling half the pitches balls and half strikes might seem fair on the surface. At least until pitchers realize that they can throw wild pitches every time and earn about as many walks as strikeouts. That’s not fair. That’s a system that’s too obsessed with norms.
Tom: Americans want debt-reduction!
Lev: But, ultimately, they value jobs more. How else to interpret Obama’s popularity hitting a nose dive during the debt ceiling negotiations, and modestly rebounding after months of focus on jobs? Put simply, I don’t see a point to Obama spending months of his time beating the drum for some plan the public is dimly aware of with no visible hope of success, instead of beating the drum for an issue the public cares deeply about.
Tom: You got me there, guy! Wanna go clubbing with me and Brooks this weekend?
Lev: I’d rather reenact the head-in-a-vice scene from Casino.
Mutual laughter, the conversation ends.
* Not really. But I now find Friedman more annoying than David Brooks. Brooks is conservative, so it’s not quite fair to get angry at him for that. Friedman just criticizes Obama for doing things he didn’t do, or not doing things he did, or not doing unwise things. Wanker.
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