By BILL KING
New York Times News Service
Throughout the election, and continuing today, Republicans have over and over repeated their sound bite that the U.S. “has a spending problem, not a revenue problem.”
To a large extent, the slogan is true. Just about every independent group that has looked at the deficit has concluded that we need to cut expenses by two to four times as much as we raise new revenues. The Simpson-Bowles Commission recommended a little more than twice as many cuts in expenses as increases in taxes.
While President Obama has always made the case that there needed to be a “balanced approach” to reducing the deficit, throughout the election he emphasized increasing taxes on high-income earners. It was good politics. Several decades of widening gaps between high- and low-income earners have created an audience increasingly ready to believe that the deck is stacked against the average Joe. The president’s campaign cleverly exploited this underlying antipathy.
To be completely fair, the president consistently said that the deficit problem could not be solved just by taxing the rich. However, he persuasively made the case that the country should not ask seniors and the poor for cuts in their benefits unless high-income earners were also asked to pay a larger share of their outsized incomes. It was a common sense argument that was grounded in our basic sense of fairness.
Republicans foolishly attempted to counter the president’s argument by asserting that taxes on “job creators” would end up hurting everyone. But a decade of lower rates ushered in by the Bush tax cuts did not produce the promised economic growth and the Republicans’ argument looked like “trickle-down economics” dressed up in a new costume.
The result was a rout in the election and in the fiscal cliff showdown for the Republicans, notwithstanding that their argument that spending needs to be reduced was true and was supported by the American people by a wide margin. They are now regrouping and planning to make a stand around the debt ceiling and sequestration to force some expense reductions.
The real question is how the president will respond. His initial reaction that he would not debate with Congress over the debt ceiling was not encouraging. Technically, he is correct. All spending must be approved by Congress. Republicans like to lay the blame for the astronomical deficits during the last four years at the president’s feet, but the reality is that every penny the federal government has spent has been approved by Congress, and during the last two years, by a House of Representatives that was controlled by Republicans. So the president is correct when he says that it is irresponsible for Congress to approve spending and drag its feet on paying the bill when it comes due.
But that kind of tit-for-tat is not going to get us anywhere. It is time for the president to lay aside his well-honed political instincts and make the tough decisions that are going to be necessary to bend the long-term costs of the federal government downward. There are plenty of ways to accomplish this. Begin to raise the eligibility age for Social Security, modify the cost-of-living calculation, reduce troop levels overseas, rein in federal and military pension benefits.
None are going to be popular. But the president has the luxury of never having to stand for election again. He can afford to propose unpopular cuts. President Lyndon B. Johnson is credited with saying that to be a statesman, you first have to be a politician so that you can get elected. The president did what he needed to do to get elected. Now it is time for him to do what is needed to be a statesman.