If the White House's approach to dealing with debt reduction weren't already obvious, the last week has made it so: President Obama has allowed almost everyone else in Washington to go first.
Since the Democrats passed their health-care law, which included some spending reforms, Obama has continued to acknowledge the importance of long-term fiscal restructuring. What has he done beyond that?
The president assembled a bipartisan debt commission, which proposed raising some taxes, closing some popular tax expenditures, cutting defense and other discretionary spending, and reforming entitlements in ways that the Democratic base wouldn't like. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the second-in-command in the Senate and a member of the commission, voted for the plan. The president has gingerly avoided endorsing it.
Then, earlier this year, Obama released his 2012 budget, which didn't contain serious debt reduction, saying that it wasn't his place to propose specific ways to reduce the country's long-term spending commitments.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) responded last week with a GOP budget outline that would reorganize Medicare and slash taxes on high-income earners.
In a cynical way, this may be the debt-reduction plan the White House has been waiting for. It allows Obama to attack the GOP plan, as David Plouffe did on the Sunday talk shows. That criticism in play, the president has now decided to swoop in with something he will pitch as more reasonable. With a fight over the debt limit looming, Obama doesn't want to seem aloof from long-term fiscal problems. But talking about cutting entitlement spending is easier when someone else takes political heat for proposing it first, and especially when that someone else proposes something as scary-sounding as what Ryan has. The pitfalls of this approach, though, are huge: that the president appears — with reason — to be following rather than leading; and that such a strategy doesn’t promote the cooperation necessary to pass anything serious.
The White House says that the president will make an announcement about his ideas for debt-reduction on Wednesday. It's unclear whether they will be much more than platitudinous. Perhaps making it more likely we'll hear more platitude than substance: A bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Six is apparently close to agreement on a compromise debt-reduction plan, too. If the president is true to habit, he won't get too far ahead of the Gang of Six, either.