February 2, 2011

Jerry Brown for president?

Maybe not, but it's striking how much more responsible and specific the California governor was in his State of the State address Monday than President Obama was in his State of the Union speech the week before.

The man once known as Governor Moonbeam sounded more like Governor Laser Beam when it came to addressing the state's fiscal crisis.

Obama waited until minute 35 to mention the nation's "mountain of debt." He then proposed almost nothing concrete to dig out from under it - certainly nothing politically risky.

Brown began with the subject of the state's dire fiscal situation and stuck to it.

"California faces a crisis that is real and unprecedented," he said. "Although our state's economy has started to recover, we will not create the jobs we need unless we get our financial house in order. . . .

"Kicking the can down the road . . . is simply out of the question. If you are a Democrat who doesn't want to make budget reductions in programs you fought for and deeply believe in, I understand that. If you are a Republican who has taken a stand against taxes, I understand where you are coming from.

"But things are different this time. In fact, the people are telling us - in their own way - that they sense that something is profoundly wrong. They see that their leaders are divided when they should be decisive and acting with clear purpose."

That was the kind of rise-above-partisan-politics message I was hoping to hear from the president. But the words above are Brown's, and they were coupled with a specific proposal: a call for a special election to let voters decide whether to extend for five years a set of temporary tax increases. Yes, you read that right: increases.

"From the time I first proposed what I believe to be a balanced approach to our budget deficit - both cuts and a temporary extension of current taxes - dozens of groups affected by one or another of the proposed cuts have said we should cut somewhere else instead," Brown noted. "Still others say we should not extend the current taxes but let them go away. So far, however, these same people have failed to offer even one alternative solution."

Granted, Brown was forced into the position of cutting lemons from lemonade. He does not enjoy the presidential luxury of being able to run a giant deficit, and he faces a whopper of a gap: $25 billion over the next 18 months, that from a general fund that has already been trimmed from more than $100 billion to $87 billion.

Brown's budget would close about half the gap with tax increases and the other half with painful spending cuts - slashing assistance for children in low-income families, poor seniors and the disabled; health care for the poor; and education. Without the extra tax revenue, he warned, the cuts would have to go even deeper into education, prisons and health programs.

Although Democrats have a majority in the legislature, putting the tax extension on the ballot requires a two-thirds vote, meaning that Brown must woo a handful of Republicans. That may be achievable: A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed two-thirds of the state's residents in favor of putting the tax extension on the ballot and a solid majority (58 percent) "generally satisfied" with Brown's hybrid budget approach.

I'm not suggesting that Obama endorse immediate cuts on a Californian scale. Those are not necessary and could hurt the still faltering recovery. But Obama - and the country - would benefit from a dose of Brown's precision and candor.

And the president might reflect on the lessons learned by Brown's Republican predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who told the Los Angeles Times last month that he erred by not forcing Californians to confront the severity of the state's fiscal situation at the start of his tenure. Instead, he finessed the problem by backing a ballot initiative to borrow $15 billion.

"It was a mistake," Schwarzenegger said. "I should've gone the other direction to early on solve the budget problem and use the political muscle I had in that first year in office."

Does Obama have enough muscle remaining? It's hard to know, since he shows so little inclination to use it.