IF PRESIDENT Obama wants a real agreement to bring the federal budget into balance, he doesn’t just have to win over traditional Democrats in Congress, who would hold Social Security and Medicare sacrosanct in their current form, or overcome opposition from Republican lawmakers who insist tax rates should always go down. The more basic job is to convince American voters that calls for shared sacrifice aren’t simply a rhetorical device — that most Americans, in one way or another, must give something up.
In many ways, Obama met that standard yesterday. He gave a cogent explanation for how mounting government debt will drive up interest rates for businesses and consumers and hinder the nation’s ability to protect its interests abroad. And he noted the public’s complicity in the problem, stating that “most Americans tend to dislike government spending in the abstract, but they like the stuff it buys.’’ When two-thirds of the federal budget goes to Social Security, health care, and national defense, there’s no use in pretending, as the Tea Party does, that cutting waste and abuse alone will get government spending under control.
Obama made a strong case that part of the fix should include raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans. While the incomes of 90 percent of Americans have declined in recent years, he noted, those of the wealthiest 1 percent have skyrocketed. And not, one might add, because the bottom 90 percent are lazier than the top 1 percent. The sacrifice should begin with those who’ve benefited disproportionately from changes in the economy.
On the spending side, Obama made it clear he opposed House Republican budget guru Paul Ryan’s plan to cut Medicare’s costs by turning it into a voucher program, and offered instead the much fuzzier idea of using a commission to reduce the cost of health care itself. While Ryan’s plan has the advantage of clarity, applying it without also overhauling a woefully inefficient health system necessarily means that many senior citizens would go without care they need.
While Obama pressed Congress to reach a deficit deal within the next couple of months, he also reminded lawmakers that this isn’t just a math problem, or a political problem. Scientific research, education, transportation, and other programs that, strictly speaking, are optional are also central to preserving the United States as a prosperous, forward-looking nation. While most Americans are understandably concerned about reducing the federal deficit, the country’s economic future depends on its quality of education and infrastructure, as well. With diligence and good will, Congress can find the right balance. Obama deserves credit for challenging both parties to do so.