Before President Obama's news conference Tuesday, he met with his predecessor George H.W. Bush. They could have traded war stories about budget fights. Obama was about to talk about the one he was starting. The 41st president could have talked about the fights that finished him politically. Or he could have offered a warning based on a question he received at a town hall debate during the 1992 campaign. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot had been squabbling about how to reduce the deficit and debt. A woman stood up and asked how the debt affected each of them. Bush famously flubbed the question, seeming a few fairways away from regular Americans in his response. But the question was as revealing as Bush's out-of-touch answer. The woman didn't understand how the debt affected the lives of Americans and why she should care.
Politicians haven't gotten better at delivering this message to people. Why do we have to reduce the deficit? And do we have to do it quickly? How will a smaller deficit improve the life of the average citizen?
It's an assumption of the current debate that these questions have already been answered. Politicians have jumped ahead to stage two of the debate: the competition over who can do more deficit-reducing. But both parties should go back to square one: Here's why we need to do it in the first place. The party that wins the political battle will be the one that makes this case most clearly to the public, because if people buy the diagnosis they'll be more likely to buy the prescription. The policy proposal that wins the day will be the one that most clearly ties deficit reduction to the health of the economy, the issue people really care about.
Agreement among politicians in Washington that cutting the deficit is important approaches 100 percent. What they fight about is how much and when. Out in the country the view is more muddled. People understand that it's bad for government to owe so much but how urgent of an issue is it for them? There doesn't seem to be a visceral feeling that cutting the deficit will affect the thing people care about most: jobs. In a recent CBS poll, 47 percent of respondents said they believed that reducing the deficit would improve the economy. 13 percent said it wouldn't or wouldn't make a difference. 38 percent weren't sure enough to give an answer.
Even for those who think reducing the deficit will improve their ability to get a job or keep one, it's not clear they think it is the most important thing that can be done. When voters are asked what they most want Washington politicians to focus on, shrinking the deficit was not in the top five. They say "jobs" or "the economy."
President Obama tried to connect deficit reduction to the everyday lives of Americans in his state of the union address. The world has changed, he argued. For people to live the American dream, they have to adapt to the changing economy. To help, he is offering a plan that includes investments in infrastructure, education, energy efficiency, and deficit reduction. He didn't exactly establish why deficit reduction would help people adapt to a changing economy, but by including it in the larger pitch he at least put it in a jobs-related framework. In today's news conference, that cluster of concepts was mostly shortened to the ever-more regrettable slogan, "Win the future." The deficit to jobs link was not made.
The White House commissioned a "White House White Board" video to explain the president's budget with Jack Lew, the administration's budget chief, playing professor. There was no discussion of why the cuts he was talking about need to be made. It was essentially spin in the guise of instruction, offering graphs to show that Obama is tackling this problem that everyone says is so important. Lew also wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times. "We cannot win the future, expand the economy and spur job creation if we are saddled with increasingly growing deficits," he said. Great. Why?
Perhaps in the end this uncertainty among the electorate helps the president, whose deficit-reduction goals are more modest than those of Republicans in Congress. People may be for deficit reduction without being as gung-ho as the GOP is. They'll naturally embrace Obama's milder approach.
Republicans are making the opposite bet. Even if people don't understand the connection between jobs and the deficit they want to see leadership, which to Republicans means big spending cuts. Tuesday afternoon they doubled down on this theory, announcing that the GOP budget will include the entitlement reform the president has been so shy about.
To get the public behind all of this, Republicans are going to have to do a better job at explaining why these big cuts are necessary, and necessary at the pace the GOP is prescribing. John Boehner keeps asserting that deficits are causing business uncertainty, which keeps them from hiring or investing, but his explanation stops there. When pressed, he submits a letter from economists saying that the deficit must be reduced.
At Obama's news conference, the president faced several questions about why he wasn't presenting a plan for managing entitlements. His answer was that conditions need to be right to tackle the big budget issues and that this won't happen unless Republicans are on board with the idea from the start. "If you look at the history of how these deals get done, typically it's not because there's an Obama plan out there; it's because Democrats and Republicans are both committed to tackling this issue in a serious way."
This response offered more support to the idea that the only real work that's going to get done on the budget will be through some largely secret process. That's how he worked out a deal on extending the Bush tax cuts last year. In his news conference today Obama referred to that closed-door process about five times as a template for tackling the budget deficit.
"I will probably not give you a play-by-play of every negotiation that takes place," he said later, about the kind of grand deal he was envisioning. He expects that, as with the tax deal last year, negotiations will proceed on two tracks, a private one and a cartoon one for public consumption. "I expect that both sides will have to do some posturing and speak to constituencies and rally the troops but that there will be a reasonable and responsible and toned down conversation." (On cue, after the press conference in which Obama said both parties needed to come together, the president threatened to veto the House GOP continuing resolution.)
One key to pulling off a secret negotiation is enduring the weeks of abuse that will come from those who charge that he isn't leading on this tough issue. Republicans are already doing so. Pundits are too. It's true, to a point. While Obama may not be making an enormous public push on entitlements at the moment, he can hardly be scored as a leadership weakling when it comes to taking action to reduce long term entitlement costs. That was one of the driving motivations behind health care reform, an issue he championed for months and one that contributed to big electoral losses by his party.
"If we don't do something soon to rein in health care costs," Medicare and Medicaid "will consume all of the federal budget," the president said in a typical remark from the beginning of his health care push in June 2009. He was criticized for focusing too closely on the green eyeshade aspects of health care reform, of talking too much about the deficit-reducing benefits of "bending the cost curve." Critics said he needed to spend more time discussing the elements of the bill that would help regular people. Once again Obama faces the problem of explaining to people how all of these numbers flying by them and all the jargon about discretionary this and sustainable that matter to their lives. At least this time, Republicans are in the same bind.