There will be no grand bargain.
Some eighteen hours before he was scheduled to meet with House Republicans on Capitol Hill Wednesday, ostensibly in search of a “grand bargain” that would reform entitlements and reverse the trajectory of US debt, Barack Obama declared three times that the U.S. does not have a debt crisis and accused opponents of wanting to “gut Medicare, gut Social Security and gut Medicaid.”
In a taped interview with ABC News, Obama told George Stephanopolous: “We don’t have an immediate crisis in terms of debt. In fact, for the next ten years, it’s going to be in a sustainable place.”
If it wasn’t already obvious that Obama’s “charm offensive” was merely a PR stunt – and I think it was – it’s clear now.
The main reason there will be no grand bargain: The president will not take the political risks necessary to address an issue that he doesn’t regard as urgent. His party opposes reforming entitlements. He apparently views Republican plans to address long-term debt as attempts to “gut” these programs. A grand bargain was never a possibility without entitlement reform. Why would the president challenge his party’s liberal base, a constituency his advisers believe is the key to winning back Congress in 2014, in order to implement policies he opposes to address an issue he doesn’t regard as urgent?
The simple answer: He won’t.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. The ABC interview wasn’t the first time Obama has downplayed the urgency of the growing national debt. Last September, the president told David Letterman “we don’t have to worry about [debt] short-term.” Obama sometimes mentions deficit reduction in a perfunctory, check-the-box way in his speeches and privately says he is open to some reworking of entitlements. The president apparently did this again during his visit to Capitol Hill yesterday to confer with Senate Democrats. According to senators in the meeting, he told them to be open to some cuts to entitlements, an admonition that was sure to be reported.
But even the president’s top allies acknowledge that musing in private about such changes is not commitment to real reform. Bloomberg reports that Senate majority leader Harry Reid “told reporters following the lunch that Republicans shouldn’t regard Obama’s words as an official offer to change entitlements.” Said Reid: “The Republicans never get further than that. And they take these things that are talked about in an abstract way and say that’s what we’ve agreed to – we haven’t agreed to any of that.”
Reforming entitlements and reducing the deficit just isn’t an Obama priority. The two main accomplishments of his first term were a stimulus that cost nearly $1 trillion and the creation of a new, middle class entitlement. After his party lost badly in the 2010 midterms due to perceived government overreach, not only did the president refuse to tack toward the center, as Bill Clinton had done in 1994, he defiantly called for more “investment” in his 2011 State of the Union. After winning reelection running as a defender of activist government, Obama opened his second term with an Inaugural Address that was nothing if not a call for more government. A month later, his State of the Union provided a detailed blueprint for the philosophical case he’d made on behalf of government activism in the campaign and his Second Inaugural Address. In a news analysis published in the New York Times the day after that speech, Dick Stevenson wrote that Obama had urged “closing out the politics of austerity.”
The goal of the president’s new so-called “charm offensive” was never to strike a deal with Republicans but demonstrate his good faith to reporters. That fact was confirmed yesterday in a comment from a senior White House aide to National Journal’s Ron Fournier that Republicans gleefully emailed to their press lists. “This is a joke. We’re wasting the president’s time and ours…I hope you all (in the media) are happy because we’re doing it for you.”
At the White House briefing yesterday, Jay Carney insisted that this admission did not reflect a broader view in the White House, but the president’s own words belie that claim. Obama said three times in his interview with Stephanopoulos that the United States does not risk a debt crisis with inaction on spending and entitlements.
And today, like every day, the U.S. government will borrow another $4 billion.