Obama’s Spending Cuts


Matt Yglesias points out that last December, when Democrats cut a deficit-busting deal with Republicans to cut taxes and increase stimulus spending, would have been a perfect time to raise the debt ceiling. But:

It didn’t happen. Obama said he trusted John Boehner. Harry Reid said he didn’t want the debt limit to be raised by the 111th Congress because he wanted to force the incoming 112th Congress to take ownership over it. The results of these decisions have been a disaster.

What’s more, not only was the disaster predictable but even once it was visibly on the horizon the White House bungled it. There was a brief opportunity for the President to dig in his heels and simply refuse to compromise. Then the debate rapidly would have become “can John Boehner round up the votes in his caucus necessary to avoid a default.” Instead, the White House conceded the unprecedented point that even though Boehner and Obama agreed about the desirability of raising the debt ceiling that the White House should make concessions to the Speaker in order to obtain it. Consequently, you get what we have here this week.

For what it’s worth, I continue to think that this probably wasn’t a bungle. More likely, during his first two years in office Obama had gotten enough deficit religion from the likes of Peter Orszag and Tim Geithner that he actually welcomed the opportunity to put in place some long-term spending cuts. He couldn’t very well admit that publicly, of course, since his base would go bananas, so instead he punted on the debt ceiling, knowing that Republicans would then use it to “force” spending concessions out of him. Mission accomplished: long-term spending is reduced, and Republicans get all the blame. Democrats mostly forgive him because everyone knows Republicans are crazy, and as a bonus, Republicans don’t even get much of a boost from their own base out of this since any real-world spending cut won’t come close to the demands of the tea party crowd.

How sure am I of this? Not very. Maybe 60%. But think of it this way: the kind of negotiating position Matt is talking about isn’t rocket science. It’s not even Negotiation 101. It’s more like the fifth grade version. There’s just no way that Obama and Reid and the rest of the Democratic brain trust were literally so stupid that they didn’t understand this. A far more parsimonious explanation is that this is roughly what Obama wanted. He wanted spending cuts, but he wanted Republicans to be the ones to take the lead. And that’s what happened.

Bottom line: I don’t think we should try to figure out what Obama “really” thinks about stimulus spending vs. deficit reduction. His actions suggest that he wants long-term spending cuts. Like it or not, that’s the real Obama.

UPDATE: Jon Chait has the same reaction as Matt, saying this about the failure last December to tie a debt ceiling increase to the tax and spending package: “It was clear that the time that Republicans were committed to pushing the boundaries of their formal powers as far as they would go, and Obama utterly failed to anticipate this.”

Seriously? Does anyone really believe that Barack Obama and his team, all with high IQs and decades of Washington experience, utterly failed to anticipate this? I don’t. A third grader might fail to anticipate this, but not Obama.

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