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Obama Swings for Fences on Debt Reduction

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


As he did on the important, but politically costly, fight for national health care reform, President Obama is acting courageously and in the broad national interest in the ongoing negotiations over raising the national debt ceiling.

While the clock ticks and we edge closer to the August 2 deadline by which the debt ceiling must be raised to avoid a disastrous default on our nation’s debt obligations, President Obama is sticking to his guns and pushing all parties toward a debt reduction of $4 trillion over 10 years. This would be a real down payment on a sound fiscal future.

Achieving this substantial deal requires measures that are politically unsavory to both sides of the aisle. Not only does it include adjustments to Social Security and Medicare, it closes some popular tax loopholes and deductions and ups the amount of taxes paid by the wealthy.

Given Washington's divided government, a deal this ambitious can only be done with bipartisan support. Unfortunately, President Obama’s potential partner in meaningful debt reduction, Republican Speaker John Boehner, has backed off his attempt to reach agreement on this kind of “grand bargain” after experiencing too much blowback from his own Republican House Caucus.

Increasing tax revenues, even through closing tax loopholes, is anathema to the increasingly conservative Republican rank and file. For the moment at least, Boehner has decided to put the preservation of his leadership position ahead of the national interest. To be fair, Boehner is in a difficult spot with a number two, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who seems to think that the old cliché about having someone’s back means putting a knife in it.

President Obama, however, remains steadfast in standing up to fellow Democrats, such as Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who are loudly saying we should not touch Social Security or Medicare, even though any long-term solution involves putting these programs on better fiscal footing. Like it or not, in an age when political courage is something of a rarity, you have to give the President credit -- Obama is willing to risk the ire of the progressive wing of his own party in order to do what he thinks is right.

A “grand bargain’ on the national debt has many potential benefits beyond restoring fiscal sanity. First demonstrating that there is a credible long-term plan to get our house in order, will give more economic and political room to provide a measure of short-term stimulus to the stalled economy It will also create the political space to aggressively pursue policies such as an infrastructure bank and alternative energy that are critical to creating new jobs and ensuring American economic competitiveness. Finally, a big bipartisan agreement will renew confidence in our nation’s ability to get big things done.

While the odds of getting this kind of big debt reduction right now seem pretty long, I remember how many times the health care legislation was given up for dead. Let’s hope President Obama can pull another rabbit out of a hat.

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Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.


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