Sunday, April 10, 2011

Agenda Setting

President Obama is planning on setting the deficit reduction agenda ahead of the next big fiscal fight. The federal debt is climbing towards the satutory limit, giving Congress another high-stakes deadline. My intuition is that many liberal commentators will see wading into the debt debate as a mistake. My impression is the opposite.

The next fight in Congress is necessarily over raising the debt ceiling. Either the President steps out in front of the debate or he gets caught in the 'negotiator' position he held during the shutdown debate. That position paid off in the shutdown battle, with the President managing to forge an ugly compromise in the nick of time. The President had a much more complex set of nuts to cover in the budget debate. The President's budget represents both the aspirations and values of the administration as well as an easy target for Republicans. Each program is presented with an actual value attached to it, essentially an instruction set for opponents for extracting leverage.

The debt ceiling debate provides a far reaching, longterm debate over the nature of the American economy and government involvement in it. The President is immensely good at grappling with the long arc of history while Republicans are clearly struggling at doing more than piecing together tactical messages. At the moment when the job market is finally catching up with the macroeconomic recovery, the President's 'chicken in every pot' philosophy will resonate a lot better than the individual isolationist tea party philosophy. Note: while more Americans polled say their philosophy is closer to the "tea party" than "congress," the question is similar to asking the public whether they identify more with Menshiviks or Russians. The president laid out a vision in the State of the Union of an agile America that responds to challenges with smart investments of capital and talent. The Tea Party will respond with an image of a calcifying American state.

American policymakers do need to get serious about the federal debt. It's absolutely insane that the government has taken in less revenue than it has spent for the past decade. The 'starve the beast--feed the rich' policy adopted by the Bush administration has cast the American economy into the poorhouse. The debt must be reckoned with, and the debate will go better for progressives and Americans if the President lays down some markers before the debate is distorted by the chattering class and propagandists.

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