Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Fear Makes Debt Deal Possible

The political world is still pondering yesterday’s news that secret talks between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner had raised the possibility of a far-reaching accord on taxes, spending and entitlements that would not only solve the temporary debt ceiling problem but address the country’s long range deficit crisis. The immediate reaction to this was panic on both the left and the right with liberal Democrats screaming bloody murder about Obama’s possible consent to drastic cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and even Social Security while Tea Partiers voiced fears the GOP leadership was about to sell them out again.

Pundits weighed in too, with Politico giving us five reasons (Obama’s desperation, GOP fear of being blamed for an economic collapse, flexibility on what is termed a tax increase, worries on Wall Street and the soothing effect of a congressional recess) why the deal may happen and the New Republic one reason (no majority for it in the House) why it won’t. Both points of view are defensible, but put me down as thinking there is one big reason why it is possible: Barack Obama wants to be re-elected, and the latest tragic unemployment statistics released today have to further concentrate his mind on the fact that unless he transforms the situation in some manner, the odds against his re-election will only increase in the coming months.

Hardliners in both parties would present an obstacle to a grand deal. I don’t think there’s any way Obama can persuade the Democratic caucus to both swallow deep cuts in spending on entitlements as well as abandon their Mediscare tactics they believe might bring them a new majority in the House next year. On the other hand, I believe if the Republicans do get Obama to agree to a simplification of the tax code that would close controversial loopholes accompanied by lower overall rates, there’s a good chance most of the House GOP members will be able to persuade themselves they won’t be raising taxes. Of course, some won’t go along no matter what happens. Michele Bachmann’s pledge that she won’t vote to raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances is a key marker in this debate and could encourage wavering Republicans to oppose a compromise. But if someone of the stature of Paul Ryan were to give his seal of approval, that might be enough to persuade Republicans to back it along with a minority of the Democratic caucus.

Which means the votes for a deal might be there. The question is, will Barack Obama defy his base and agree to it?

My answer is a qualified yes. The president has to know unless he does something revolutionary, the economy will doom his chances for re-election no matter whom the Republicans nominate to oppose him. He can’t hope to win next year blaming unemployment on George W. Bush or even John Boehner. It may not happen, but I think those who are saying it can’t haven’t reckoned with Obama’s fear of losing next November.