July 11, 2011

PERHAPS THE president’s pea-dissing will not stand him in good stead with the health-conscious, vegetable-growing first lady, but otherwise President Obama got just about everything right in his news conference Monday. Liberals should acknowledge, as he said, that progressive government depends on controlling the national debt. Conservatives should accept that achieving a deal in a divided government will require some give and take, including on revenue. And, yes, it is time for everyone involved in the budget debate to “eat our peas” — to stop talking about how hard this all is and actually get something done.

“We keep on talking about this stuff and we have these high-minded pronouncements about how we’ve got to get control of the deficit and how we owe it to our children and our grandchildren,” Mr. Obama said. “Well, let’s step up. Let’s do it . . . I’m prepared to take on significant heat from my party to get something done. And I expect the other side should be willing to do the same thing — if they mean what they say that this is important.” Nothing about solving the nation’s debt crisis is going to get easier with time. Rather, the longer action is postponed, the more painful it will be.

The president made two points that are worth stressing. The first responds to the phony Republican argument that taxes cannot be raised for fear of harming the faltering recovery. As Mr. Obama noted, “nobody has talked about increasing taxes now. Nobody has talked about . . . increasing taxes next year.” The debate is about raising revenue down the road and right-sizing government for the next decade. So the argument against “job-killing tax increases” in a downturn, no matter how often repeated, remains baloney.

The second point responds to Democrats who insist that all entitlement benefits must be spared for fear of harming the most vulnerable. In truth, as the president said, entitlement reform — including reform that contemplates benefit cuts — is the truly progressive position.

Sensible changes in Social Security and Medicare, targeted at those most able to absorb them, would enable those programs to protect those whose need is greatest. As the president put it, “if you’re a progressive who cares about the integrity of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, and believes that it is part of what makes our country great that we look after our seniors and we look after the most vulnerable, then we have an obligation to make sure that we make those changes that are required to make it sustainable over the long term.”

Similarly, controlling the country’s debt is essential to creating the fiscal space to preserve programs for the most vulnerable and perform core government functions. “If you’re a progressive that cares about investments in Head Start and student loan programs and medical research and infrastructure,” Mr. Obama said, “we’re not going to be able to make progress on those areas if we haven’t gotten our fiscal house in order.”

Will the president’s arguments change minds in either party or put the elusive grand bargain within closer reach? Maybe not, in which case a period of dangerous brinkmanship is fast approaching. But here’s one reason for optimism: A less far-reaching deal on the debt ceiling may prove equally elusive. And here’s one more: What Mr. Obama said Monday made a whole lot of sense. Even in Washington, that ought to count for something.