Obama steps in: Can he avert a government shutdown start a new budget debate

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April 5 2011 9:58 PM

Baby Sitter in Chief

Obama steps in to try to end Congress' budget bickering—and to engage in the larger debate about the deficit.

Paul Ryan. Cilck image to expand.
Rep. Paul Ryan

President Obama had another "Daddy's home!" moment on Tuesday. Republicans and Democrats in Congress have bickered themselves into a stalemate over how to fund government for the rest of the fiscal year, so Obama took to the White House briefing room to scold them into action. "It would be inexcusable for us not to be able to take care of last year's business," he said, "simply because of politics." 

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk. Follow him on Twitter.

This was a departure for a president who has been trying to stay out of negotiations directly. It was a sign that progress had broken down—but also that Obama really does not want to risk a shutdown. It also cast doubt about prospects for agreement on the new and improved budget debate over government operations that was starting on the very day Obama was trying to settle the old and tired one. House budget committee Chairman Paul Ryan released a bold blueprint for the next 10 years that cuts $4 trillion, setting up a grand debate between the president and congressional Republicans over the role of government, the nature of leadership, the meaning of compromise, and, not incidentally, the central themes of the 2012 election.

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Addressing last year's unfinished business, the president said he wanted everyone to "act like grownups" but argued that he and Democrats had compromised by meeting Republicans halfway on their demands. He said he'd hold meetings at the White House until both parties worked something out. We've seen this posture from the president before—chiding politicians for playing politics when the American people just want to see something get done. He played this role during the debate over the Bush tax cuts last year, letting the two sides bicker and then, after they'd exhausted themselves, walking into the basement rec room and getting the sweaty, red-faced teenagers to shake hands.

This time, though, the president seemed irritated that he had to engage. "I shouldn't have to oversee a process in which Congress deals with last year's budget when we only have six months left," he said. Oversee is a slightly kinder word than baby-sit, but that was the thrust of the president's view. Republicans pointed out that the president was fussing about having to break up the game-playing but that it was Democratic leaders in control of both chambers of Congress last year who turned the whole business into a game by not passing a budget. (In fairness to Democratic leaders, that wasn't mere game-playing. That was serious duty-shirking.)

While the president seemed irritated he had to straighten out members of Congress, Ryan was receiving praise for his bold act of leadership. In a town obsessed with the need to be serious about the budget, Ryan won the grand prize. Not only was his plan big, but it met a key Washington seriousness test: He was willing to court political disaster to meet his goals.

Trouble was quick in coming. His plans to reform Medicare and Medicaid, just two of myriad proposals, were deemed by the Congressional Budget Office to have politically toxic potential outcomes. According to a preliminary report (which credited the plan with increasing GDP and national income due to deficit reduction), the Ryan plan would cause the elderly on Medicare to pay more for their health care. Less politically volatile, the CBO also said the plan would lead to reduced benefits for Medicaid recipients.

If the Ryan plan was bold on the leadership front, it was weak on the political front. As Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget outlined the problem: It's never going to pass in a Congress in which Democrats control the Senate. "The national discussion has moved beyond just finding a plan with sufficient savings to finding one that can generate enough support to move forward," she wrote.