One Way Obama Can Win
Last night, Congress endorsed the Obama agenda. Passing a budget outline that closely mirrors the one the president submitted to it, the majority is now poised to fill in the details, ushering in a new era of federal interventionism.
Or is it? Sure, the budget plans passed both chambers of Congress comfortably – 233 to 196 in the House and 55 to 43 in the Senate. In the Senate, the real battleground, fence-sitting moderate Democrats such as Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas even voted for it. But Indiana’s Evan Bayh and Nebraska’s Ben Nelson, other members of a group of centrists who wield tremendous power in the Senate, both opposed the plans, not to mention the moderate Republicans who ultimately proved critical to the passage of Obama’s stimulus bill.
As Congress hammers out the details, either the president will have to get the rest of the centrists on board, or he will have to use reconciliation, a maneuver that removes the threat of filibuster, so that he can pass major legislation without them. Doing the latter would arguably poison the atmosphere in the Senate, harming the president’s chances of accord in the future. So how does he sway the centrists in the Senate -- not to mention the folks like me who squirm at the White House’s depressing budget projections?
Among other things, he should quickly follow through on one of the commitments he made at the Group of 20 conference that just concluded in London. An underappreciated passage of the final communiqué the world leaders released reads, “We are resolved to ensure long-term fiscal sustainability and price stability and will put in place credible exit strategies from the measures that need to be taken now…”
In his prime-time press conference last week, Obama all but admitted that he hadn’t released a complete exit strategy for the era of massive deficits America is entering. His policy would need further “adjustments,” he said, in order to take care of budget-busting entitlement spending and other looming fiscal disasters. And that presupposes the assumptions underlying the president’s revenue projections are right. If, say, the Congressional Budget Office’s more pessimistic figures prove more prescient, even Peter Orszag, the president’s budget chief, admits that budget deficits resulting from Obama's plan would be unsustainable.
So, Mr. President, what’s the exit strategy? Give the center something believable. What sorts of “adjustments” will you seek? Map a more explicit and realistic path back to fiscal sustainability, and the center will have an easier time supporting you. Of course, it might be that Obama has already touched too many third rails in this town, that even talking with great detail about painful entitlement reforms, for example, is too politically costly. But using the reconciliation bomb isn’t a great option, either.
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