In a high-stakes negotiation, the most important moves often come not in the end game but at the very start, when one side or the other prevails in defining what is on the table. If you listened closely, you might have heard President Barack Obama try to do just that in his news conference on Monday, when he suggested that Washington will have tamed the government’s debt problems if the two parties can agree on another $1.5 trillion or so in spending cuts and tax increases.
Fiscal hawks and small-government conservatives say the White House is setting the bar for fiscal responsibility way too low and just kicking the can down the road again on hard decisions that will only become more painful as time goes by. But Obama appeared intent on establishing that he was just one more deal away from putting the government back on sound footing, if only Republicans would go along. His numbers are relatively straightforward. During his re-election campaign he committed himself to $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years — he referred to that figure on Monday as the “consensus” on what is necessary “to stabilize our debt and deficit” — including savings he and Congress had already agreed to. Altogether, they have enacted roughly $2.5 trillion in budget cuts and tax increases so far.
At around $4 trillion in deficit reduction, the United States would have a good shot at achieving what Obama and a growing number of Democrats consider to be a politically plausible and economically meaningful outcome: holding the national debt steady for a decade or so at under 75 percent of gross domestic product. (As recently as last summer the Congressional Budget Office was projecting a debt-to-GDP ratio climbing into the 80s by the end of this decade if the government did not act to cut spending further and raise more tax revenue.)
Banking that last $1.5 trillion in budget savings would no doubt be achieved only after considerable partisan warfare, and the task will be that much tougher because it is tied up in the showdown over whether Congress will raise the debt ceiling. But if the president can threaten, cajole and compromise his way to one more big deficit-reduction pact, the job of putting the nation’s fiscal house in order, in his telling, would be more or less complete. “If we combine a balanced package of savings from spending on health care and revenues from closing loopholes, we can solve the deficit issue without sacrificing our investments in things like education that are going to help us grow,” he said, referring to his existing proposals for modest trims to Medicare and tax-code changes that would generate more revenue from the wealthy.