When the economy is bad, the issue of the deficit can be a proxy. People express their frustration with the lack of job growth by blaming Washington profligacy. It's also a simple issue lawmakers can talk about. Get the deficit number down, and jobs will return. This is easy to say when you're out of power and don't have to get specific about how you're going to do any of this. The primacy of the deficit is the message the GOP took from the 2010 election. In exit polls, 37 percent said Congress' No. 1 priority should be reducing the budget deficit.
The GOP also knows, however, that the politics of the deficit change when the debate gets specific. That's why Republican leaders didn't get specific before the election and are slow to do so now. People don't want to make the hard choices. They're already sacrificing enough.
Complicating this political moment is that the debate between the two parties isn't really about how to address the deficit. Both the president and Republicans have plans to tackle the problem. It's a matter of emphasis. The president isn't ignoring the deficit. He's just not making the grueling case he promised. Not even close. (He's even punted on the recommendations of his Fiscal Commission, the formation of which was itself a punt from hard choices). He's hoping that people won't judge his efforts on the economy based on what he does about the deficit. There's some support for his position: In those same exit polls, 37 percent also said that Congress' No. 1 priority should be "spending to create jobs." In a recent Pew poll, 84 percent said politicians should make jobs a top priority. Only 64 percent said the budget deficit should be a top priority.
Furthermore, deficit reduction is not an area where the president can play to his political strength. He'll never out-cut Republicans, who are engaged in an intramural game of how-low-can-you-go. Plus, say White House aides, when the president submits his budget, it will be full of painful choices. Months will be spent arguing not about whether there will be pain, but how much of it there will be. Obama knows this is coming, so his message now is kind of a base coat of optimism that can help people understand why they should go through all of this hard choosing.
This isn't just about political positioning, of course. The president genuinely believes that his "Win the Future" policies will lead to more jobs. In November 2012, it will be all that matters. If the unemployment rate is still high, the president isn't going to win re-election by saying he was painfully honest about the necessity for huge budget cuts. Plus, with interest rates so low, why not invest a little now in the hopes that economic growth helps plug the deficit.
Even if the investment agenda doesn't affect the economy immediately, his constant talk about innovation and improving education will show him concerned about the key issue voters care about, allowing them to make a connection between his actions and economic improvement.
This drama will play out over the next few months in a three-act play about how to shrink the government. First will come the March vote to continue funding the government. Next will be a debate over passing the federal budget. Finally, there will be a vote to raise the debt ceiling. What's going on now is an extended prologue.