If Barack Obama doesn't want to be a one-term president, he has a funny way of showing it. I can't imagine how the president could come out of the debt ceiling negotiations in a worse political position.
All along, President Obama should have been insisting on a "clean" debt ceiling hike or at least a deal that increases revenue as much as it cuts spending. Instead, he has in effect conceded the need for at minimum $2 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade. (Don't expect that to come out of the defense budget). But Obama would rather "go big" with a $4 trillion debt reduction deal, including cuts to entitlement programs as well as other spending reductions, in exchange for unspecified tax reform and some tax increases (after 2013). When the U.S. should be lowering the age for Medicare eligibility, Obama offered to increase the Medicare age from 65 to 67, hoping Republicans would then agree to tax increases as part of the grand bargain.
Are you kidding? Of course House Speaker John Boehner rejected the president's offer this past weekend. Republicans know there will be a deal on raising the debt ceiling at some point. They've got the president on the hook for at least $2 trillion in domestic spending cuts. Now Republicans can say they saved Americans from the bigger deal Obama wanted--the one that would have raised your taxes, cut Social Security, and forced seniors to wait longer before joining Medicare.
Obama knows the Bush tax cuts didn't create jobs or boost economic growth during the past decade, but he does nothing to combat Republican rhetoric about "raising taxes on job-creators." Incidentally, letting all the Bush tax cuts expire would prevent the national debt from growing over the next decade, even if Congress didn't cut spending at all.
Obama sees anything that angers Democrats as a sign he's on the right track, judging from his comments at a press conference on Monday:
"It's not going to get easier. It's going to get harder," Mr. Obama said. "So we might as well do it now. Pull off the Band-Aid. Eat our peas. Now is the time to do it."
He added that both parties need to "step up."
"Let's do it," he said. "I'm prepared to do it. I'm prepared to take on significant heat from my party to get something done."
Mr. Obama repeatedly praised Mr. Boehner for his willingness to consider a broader package to reduce the debt. But he said the political pressures on the House speaker were clearly affecting Mr. Boehner's ability to cut a deal.
"The leaders in the room at a certain point have to step up and do the right thing regardless of the voices in our parties," he said. "It's going to take some work on his side. But look, it's also going to take some work on our side to get this done."
So cutting Social Security and Medicare is "the right thing" to do, and nothing is more important than addressing long-term deficits. This when unemployment is above 9 percent and rising. The best deficit-reduction plan would be aggressive policies to bring down the jobless rate, but Obama wants everyone to know that reducing the debt is a higher priority than stimulating the economy. He seems to genuinely believe in austerity politics.
I was never a big fan of President Bill Clinton, but at least he refused to let Congressional Republicans "backdoor their budget proposals" as part of a deal on the debt ceiling. Obama is not only eager to help Republicans trim spending, he's begging them to join him on cutting entitlements. Maybe he thinks he will go down in history as the brave president who fought his own party to "do the right thing." More likely he'll go down in history as the Democrat who started dismantling Medicare and Social Security, or the president who settled for historically high unemployment as the new normal.
If he loses the 2012 election, he'll have only himself to blame.