President Obama recently took a beating from some on the left for suggesting that immediate deficit reduction is necessary to take the issue off the table and make it possible to spend more on liberal priorities later. And Obama of course has regularly been criticized by liberals for prioritizing deficit reduction and for effectively ceding the argument over government spending and job creation to the other side.
In a key moment at his presser today, Obama gave what I think is the most extensive reply to that criticism yet. It’s worth quoting at length (transcript slightly edited):
If you are a progressive, you should be concerned about debt and deficit just as much as if you’re a conservative. And the reason is because if the only thing we’re talking about over the next year, two years, five years is debt and deficits, then it’s very hard to start talking about how do we make investments in community colleges so that our kids are trained. How do we actually rebuild $2 trillion worth of crumbling infrastructure.
If you care about making investments in our kids, and making investments in our infrastructure, and making investments in basic research, then you should want our fiscal house in order so that every time we propose a new initiative, somebody doesn’t just throw up their hands and say “more big spending, more government.”
It would be very helpful for us to be able to say to the American people: “Our fiscal house is in order. So, now the question is, what should we be doing to win the future, and make ourselves more competitive, and create more jobs, and what aspects of what government’s doing are a waste, and we should eliminate.” And that’s the kind of debate that I’d like to have.
Obama’s argument is that progressives won’t be able to make the case to the public for more spending unless the deficit is neutralized as an issue. The idea seems to be that once Republicans and Democrats buy into a bipartisan plan that reduces the deficit, voters will more open when Dems propose government investment in our economy, infrastructure and future. They won’t be as easily distracted every time Republicans shout, “Boo, Big Government Liberal.”
Some liberals will respond that this risks ceding the short term argument in advance, with the result that the public never gets to hear the case for running deficits in a bad economy and dealing with them later. Liberals will also reply that Republicans will go right on tarring Dem policies as big spending liberalism run amok even if a deficit deal is reached — and that there's no taking such issues “off the table.”
I assume that Obama knows this, and thinks that even if this is true, the public will be less receptive to GOP arguments once the deficit has been neutralized as an issue — that the public will be more capable of actually listening to the ideas Dems are proposing. Jonathan Bernstein argues that there’s precedent for this: Once Clinton restored his credibility with the middle of the country in the wake of the 1994 disaster, he was able to pick (and win) major fights over the proper role of government and the safety net that set back the GOP drive to dismantle government for a decade.
I don’t know if this will work for Obama — unlike Clinton, he’s attempting this in the middle of a terrible economy. But either way, there’s no longer any doubt about the President’s reasoning as to why it’s appropriate for deficit reduction to throughly dominate our politics for the time being.