According to congressional Republicans, federal policymakers should have a specific fiscal goal: balance the budget in 10 years. Why? Well, no one knows, exactly. GOP leaders seemed to pick an arbitrary number and demanded that the political world not only take it seriously, but agree to a fiscal debate on their terms.
President Obama sat down yesterday with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos and said something interesting: he sees no need to have a debate that accepts the Republican premise.
For those who can't watch clips online, Stephanopoulos noted that Paul Ryan has unveiled the House Republican budget plan and has challenged Obama to present a plan that eliminates the deficit entirely. The ABC host asked, "Are you going to do that?" The president, "No."
"My goal is not to chase a balanced budget just for the sake of balance. My goal is, how do we grow the economy, put people back to work, and if we do that, we're going to be bringing in more revenue, if we control spending and we've got a smart entitlement package, then potentially what you have is balance. But it's not balance on the backs of the poor, the elderly, students who need student loans, families who've got disabled kids -- that's not the right way to balance our budget."
The president went on to say, "We're not going to balance the budget in 10 years. If you look at what Paul Ryan does to balance the budget, it means that you have to voucherize Medicare, you have to slash deeply into programs like Medicaid, you've essentially got to either tax middle class families a lot higher than you currently are, or you can't lower rates the way he's promised."
Good for him. I can think of plenty of instances from his first term in which the president has bought into Republican rhetoric on fiscal matters, ceding key elements of the larger debate. As of now, it appears that's over -- Obama isn't going to jump through deficit-reduction hoops simply because congressional Republicans expect him to.
Indeed, even Ryan has struggled to explain why it's necessary to balance the budget within 10 years. His blueprint, released yesterday, said lower interest rates will boost the economy, but interest rates are already ridiculously low. We're left with shallow talking points in which GOP lawmakers tout a specific-but-arbitrary fiscal goal for no other reason than they think it sounds nice.
The president, to his credit, is presenting a smarter path. It's not as progressive a path as I'd like -- my preference would be to hear Obama say he wants to borrow more in the short term, using the money to boost the economy -- but if deficit reduction is to remain a priority, at least it's a sensible approach built on gradually striving for fiscal sustainability.
The latest Republican plan picks a target date out of the air, calls for brutal and unpopular spending cuts, punishes the poor while giving the wealthy another massive tax break, and challenges the president to follow their lead. Obama doesn't see the need to play along.