September 2, 2011

SHOWING COMMON sense, President Obama retreated quickly and graciously from the stunt cooked up by his staff to schedule a major address to conflict with a Republican presidential debate. Having also assuaged the National Football League gods by agreeing to speak 90 minutes before the season kicks off, Mr. Obama has assured that the subject of his speech — jobs — and not its timing will be the center of attention Thursday.

But that raises a bigger problem for the president. Having built anticipation for weeks and stoked it with his request to address a joint session of Congress, Mr. Obama will be expected to deliver serious, timely solutions. The dismal job numbers for August released Friday sharpen the expectation. In reality, there’s not all that much he can do.

We don’t mean that simply in political terms. It’s true that the Republican-controlled House is unlikely to approve any big stimulus measures. Many liberals would like Mr. Obama to champion such measures anyway, to set up a contrast for the 2012 election. Whether such a tactic would help the president, or brand him as a big spender too weak to work his will on Congress, we leave for his political advisers to decide. Certainly it wouldn’t do much to reduce unemployment.

But even if Mr. Obama could dominate the unruly Congress, he wouldn’t have many useful policy levers to pull. From the start of this financial crisis, recovery was bound to be slow and painful. It was going to take years to shrink the huge overhang of credit-card debt, unoccupied single-family homes and other remnants of a binge decade. We knew that there would be, and should be, no return to the free-borrowing days — that the U.S. economy needed to restructure and that Washington could accelerate that process only modestly.

More low-cost money from the Federal Reserve Board, extending or expanding the payroll tax cut, a bigger highway-building program — these may be useful. Certainly contractionary measures aren’t called for. Approving long-delayed free-trade pacts with Colombia, South Korea and Panama would help. But given the deficit the government is running — currently projected by the White House at almost 9 percent of the entire economy — you could argue that it already is pursuing a pretty stimulative fiscal policy. Additional measures aren’t going to have the impact they might have had in run-of-the-mill recessions.

What Washington might most usefully do is show by legislating a long-term plan to restore fiscal soundness that American politics aren’t broken. Such an outcome would undercut the narrative of American decline. It would reassure the world that the United States understands the road to recovery and has the fortitude to make hard decisions. It would give investors confidence and businesses an impetus to begin hiring again.

Is there any chance? A supercommittee of 12 legislators will begin meeting this month. The good news, thanks to past work by Bowles-Simpson, Rivlin-Domenici and other bipartisan commissions, is that the path to solvency is well marked. There have to be serious changes to Medicare and Social Security, so that those entitlement programs don’t bankrupt an aging nation. And there must be higher revenue; it was reduced a decade ago amid projected surpluses and is now inadequate to pay for what almost all Americans perceive as the nation’s needs. The financial markets would welcome such a deal; so would most citizens.

Ironically, though, promoting such changes remains politically perilous in the eyes of partisans on both sides. By agreeing to substantive entitlement reforms, Democrats would muddy what many see as their best attack line for 2012, which is that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his colleagues want to destroy Medicare. By agreeing to any tax hikes, Republican incumbents open themselves to challenges from the right, in an era when partisan redistricting has left many members more vulnerable to the extreme than to the center. By allowing any progress to be made, some Republicans may worry that they are boosting Mr. Obama’s reelection chances. And the president, having disappointed when he could have usefully propelled Bowles-Simpson forward, may now only complicate the supercommittee’s work if he intervenes.

Adding to those powerful political head winds are partisan calculations about who gains from delay. The Bush tax cuts expire at the end of next year; Democrats may feel that gives them a leg up worth waiting for. Republicans are optimistic about reclaiming control of the Senate and the White House, too; they may feel there’s no point in dealing now if they can dictate later.

But the prospect of one-party dominance is a mirage. The balanced, revenue-plus-entitlement-reform approach is essential because it is, on balance, what most Americans want. The faction that favors a Ron Paul-sized government is minuscule; even if it could impose its solution in 2013, it would never stick. The same is true of those who might favor a new New Deal. Both patriotism and political realism favor compromise.

Surely there are members of the supercommittee who understand that, and party leaders as well. Will they be willing to take risks for the sake of what’s right? That’s the central question of the drama that opens this week.