As I listened to President Obama’s press conference this morning, which was dominated by budget issues, I thought of the recent criticism coming from the Right regarding Obama’s alleged unwillingness to address entitlement reform, typified by a comment by the GOP’s star quarterback on budget issues, Congressman Paul Ryan:
Presidents are elected to lead, not to punt. And this president has been punting.
Hmm. “Punting.” Why do coaches punt? Often in a game, when fans and quarterbacks are clamoring to “go for it,” wise coaches punt. They do so in order to preserve field position, so as to have a better chance of scoring later. And it is thinking about that “later”—the long-term—for which coaches get paid, not giving in to “the moment.”
As Obama said today:
I’m looking forward to having a conversation, but… the key here is for people to be practical not to score political points. That’s true for all of us. I think if we take that approach we can navigate the situation in the short term and deal with the problem long term.
Now, that’s wise coach-talk, no matter what quarterback Ryan says.
In the case of entitlement reform, President Obama said today that “this is going to be a process” and that we need to have patience—something the press doesn’t have, he suggested—much like a coach would tell his star quarterback, who almost never wants to punt on fourth down.
But the point here is not that the President or his team wins a political game, but that real entitlement reform happens, both to preserve entitlements for future generations and to ensure that they remain safety nets for the most vulnerable among us. That’s the touchdown in this scenario.
Here was his full response to NBC newsman Chuck Todd’s question about entitlement reform and the President’s debt commission:
Part of the challenge is here is that in this town let’s face it, you guys are pretty impatient…
I think there’s a tendency for us to assume that if it didn’t happen today it’s not going to happen. Well, the fiscal commission put out a framework. I agree with much of the framework, I disagree with some of the framework. It is true that it got 11 votes. That was a positive sign. When it is also true is that the chairman of the House Republican budgeteers did not sign off. He’s got … concerns. I will need to have a conversation with him, and with those Democrats that did not vote for it.
There are some issues in there, that as a matter of principle I do not agree with, where I think they did not go far enough or they went too far. So, this is going to be a process in which each side in both chambers of Congress go back and forth and start trying to whittle their differences down until we arrive said something that has an actual chance at passage. And that is my goal. My goal is to actually solve the problem. It is not to get a good headline on the first day. My goal is that a year from now, or two years from now, people look back and say we started making progress on this issue.
The key to achieving an agreement on how to reform entitlements is, as Mr. Obama put it, to make sure that both parties get “in the boat at the same time, so it doesn’t tip over.” In other words, to prevent demagoguery by leaders in either party, nobody is going to go it alone.
Obama’s latest budget, which he knows is not the final word on the subject, was an attempt to send a signal to everyone that he is serious about tackling deficit spending—”stabilizing the current situation,” as he put it—even though it dealt only with discretionary budget reductions.
Today’s press conference was designed to send the message that he is willing to compromise on entitlement reform, as long as there is someone reasonable on the other side to deal with. He thinks there will be, although he expects “all sides will have to do some posturing on television” before it’s all said and done.
Far from the hysteria surrounding our deficit and debt issues—many conservatives routinely refer to failure to radically cut spending as America “going off the cliff”—Obama’s demeanor and his conversation today was reassuring. He was calm, sober, and free from the anxiety that characterizes much of the debate, particularly among those who want to use the debt problem as an excuse to kill government. He was also confident about progress and its ancillary benefits:
In terms of the markets, I think what the markets want to see is progress. The markets understand that we’re not — we didn’t get here overnight and we’re not going to get out overnight. What they want to see is that we have the capacity to work together. If they see us chipping away at this problem in a serious way, even if we haven’t solved 100% of it all in one fell swoop, then that will provide more confidence that Washington can work.
And more than anything, that’s not just what the markets want, that’s what the American people. They just want some confirmation that this place can work. And I think it can.
The underlying message from Coach Obama is that it’s not necessary to panic. Act like adults, get in the huddle together, and get the job done.
Time will tell whether the President will give away too much in any possible compromise with seemingly unbending House Republicans, but I was encouraged by his statement that his deficit commission did recommend some things that he disagreed with on principle. And he reaffirmed today his opposition to tax cuts for the wealthy. Although those tax cuts contribute to the deficit, more than that they symbolize the Republican duplicity on the deficit issue. Obama said,
… when it comes to, over the long-term, maintaining tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, that will mean additional deficits of $1 trillion. If you’re serious about deficit reduction, you don’t do that.
Finally, the President essentially challenged Americans to have an “adult conversation” about national priorities, about “what’s important, and here’s how we’re going to pay for it.” You want a strong military? Veterans Benefits? Health care for seniors? Want to help your neighbors during a natural disaster? That stuff requires taxes. At one point he said,
If we’re cutting infant formula to poor kids, is that who we are as a people?
Ultimately, the answer to that question of identity rests with the American people. Those things do need to be discussed, and Mr. Obama and the Democrats need to keep reminding all of us that we will have the kind of government we are willing to pay for or else we will see a gradual decline—not a precipitous drop—in American fiscal and social well-being.
And for my money, President Obama is the leader in these times of choice, even though Republicans in Congress—and ultimately the people who sent them there—may very well choose decline over progress.