There's a reason a president wouldn't want to be too specific about deficit reduction in his State of the Union address. Be too bold and detailed and opponents would hang those proposals around his neck, making an eventual compromise more difficult.
Even so, President Obama's speech Thursday night was a major letdown. Two serious deficit-reduction plans last year, one from Obama's own deficit commission, had created buzz around the idea that the issue might have achieved critical mass. The next logical step would have been for Obama to issue an unequivocal call for action. Instead, in an otherwise unusually good speech Tuesday night, he whiffed.
In the one-tenth or so of the speech he devoted to the budget, Obama stuck largely to platitudes and joined Republicans obsessed with going straight for the capillaries by focusing cuts on a narrow slice of non-security discretionary spending. Republicans want to cut it by as much as 30 percent or 40 percent right away. Obama proposed instead to freeze it for five years, the only specific deficit-reduction proposal he mentioned.
Obama noted that focusing on 12 percent of the budget won't get the job done. Indeed -- his proposal would save $400 billion over the next 10 years, a period during which deficits will amount to $10.6 trillion. Great start -- we're 3.8 percent of the way there. (And while we're on the subject, why did the president brag that this would reduce discretionary spending to its lowest level as a share of GDP since Ike was president? The nation and its government are both far larger and more complex than they were in the 1950s -- among other things, the EPA and the departments of Transportation, Energy, HUD and Education didn't exist. How, exactly, is returning to 1958 spending levels a virtue?)
Much of the rest of what the president had to say was even more disappointing. He damned his deficit commission with faint praise -- he said he didn't agree with all their proposals, "but they made important progress." Ouch. He effectively rejected the idea of strengthening Social Security in part by scaling back future benefits, something virtually every serious reformer thinks should be part of the fix. He said simplifying the tax code is a great idea that both parties seem interested in, and he is "prepared to join them." Prepared to join them? Shouldn't he be leading the effort?
"So now is the time to act," Obama said, failing to set a deadline, demand bipartisan negotiations or say anything to underscore the urgency of doing something "now." It is hard not to get the impression that the president doesn't think the issue is urgent, or that he has any real chance of advancing it this year.
Rising GOP star Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the House Budget Committee, followed Obama and did little to dispel the idea that whatever action there is in 2011 will be fought mainly in the 12 percent of the budget that both sides now seem to agree can be sacrificed in a substitute for serious work.
Ryan is famously the author of the "Roadmap for America's Future," an aggressive plan to reimagine the federal budget that has gotten much praise for being bold and innovative. But as Matt Miller pointed out Tuesday in The Washington Post, Ryan's plan is breathtakingly unambitious about lowering the deficit and restraining the national debt. It postpones balancing the budget until 2063 and allows so much new debt to pile up -- an extra $62 trillion in Miller's estimate -- that the national debt would equal GDP in 2043 for the first time since World War II and wouldn't return to where it is today (about 65 percent of GDP) until 2065. Wow.
None of this sets the stage for a serious effort to begin to get the federal deficits and debt under control this year. There's still time for Obama and Ryan to offer real budget proposals, and maybe they'll surprise us. Maybe there will be a budget summit later this year. Maybe. But this isn't a promising start.
George Hager is a member of the USA Today editorial board.
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