Do you remember what the mainstream media mainly talked about as the country careened toward the fiscal cliff? Did they talk about the harmful economic effects of impending tax increases? Did they talk about which tax increases would be worse than others? Did they talk about the need to get rid of waste in government without causing economic harm?
No. None of that. The taking heads and opinion writers focused like a laser on one and only one question: who was going to get the blame if we went over the cliff.
Up next will be the debt ceiling deadline (in a matter of weeks), then the automatic sequester of federal spending (in less than two months), and then (in three months) comes a close-down-the-government-moment, when Congress will have to pass a continuing resolution, because it can't seem to ever pass a real budget. Through it all, expect more of the same. Instead of real issues, the media will treat these events like a boxing match. Who's landing a blow? Who's getting hurt?
Think about that for a moment. If we don't curtail entitlement spending, we're going to end up like Greece. Even the Democrats are unwilling to tax enough to pay the bills. But none of this is interesting to people who talk and write for a living. Only the blame game holds their attention.
OK. I'm willing to devote at least one column to that topic and here is my answer: President Obama deserves about 90 percent of the blame for these crises. Here's why.
During the 2008 election, I was actually hopeful about Barack Obama. He was the only serious candidate in the Democratic primary who said we need to do something about entitlement spending, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. For this, he took much abuse from the left, including scathing condemnation by Paul Krugman in The New York Times. Yet he stood his ground.
What made me especially hopeful was that Barack Obama was a liberal Democrat. Just as it took a Republican (Richard Nixon) to go to China, I fear it will take a Democrat to reform entitlements. Bill Clinton was about to do what needs to be done with Social Security and Medicare until Monica Lewinski derailed him. Then George Bush proved that Republicans are never going to be able to reform Social Security. Perhaps, Barack Obama could pick up where Bill Clinton left off. Could that really happen?
After the election, I became even more hopeful. When President Obama appointed Alan Simpson and Erskind Bowles to head a commission to tackle the problem of ever escalating federal debt, even the Republicans in Congress were opposed. But the president forged ahead, despite no congressional support. He met personally with Simpson and Bowles and promised them that he would back their recommendations — let the chips fall where they may.
Alan Simpson is a former Republican senator from Wyoming. Erskind Bowles is the former chief of staff to Bill Clinton. This bipartisan approach was exactly what Barack Obama campaigned on and it is why many people (including many Republicans) voted for him.
The Simpson/Bowles recommendations were released in December 2010. But there was no meeting at the White House. In fact, the president greeted the report with stony silence. In January, there was no mention of the report in his State of the Union speech to Congress. There was nothing in the president's budget that year either. It was as though Simpson and Bowles did not exist.
Then the president did something unforgivable. In the spring of 2011, he invited Paul Ryan to a public event with the promise that "Congressman Ryan will really like what the president has to say." Ryan was head of the House Budget Committee and the main person the president would have to deal with if there was to be any bipartisan solution to our budget crises. Then, in front of a national television audience, the president gratuitously lashed out at Ryan — even accusing him of being "un-American" for his views on how to reduce budget deficits.
Many of us were stunned. Politicians rarely attack other politicians if they don't have to. When they're running against each other, it's no holds barred. But when they have to legislate together, there is nothing gained and a lot to lose by publically humiliating a member of the opposite party.
To this day, I'll never understand why Barack Obama chose to pull off that stunt. It was a public repudiation of every principle he ran on in his quest for the presidency. But I do know this. From that day forward, there has been a different Obama in the White House.
In the latest round of negotiations, the president repeatedly mischaracterized the Republican position. Remember: last fall's election is over. The president now has to work with Republicans to solve critical budget problems. Yet in discussing those efforts publically, time and again the president has gone out of his way to insult and demean the very people he is negotiating with.
The Republicans, according to the president, care only about millionaires and billionaires. He, on the other hand, is protecting the middle class by insisting they get to keep their tax cuts. What tax cuts? The Bush tax cuts. The tax cuts that Obama and most other congressional Democrats voted against, campaigned against and attacked time and again as the cause of spiraling federal deficits!
As I wrote last week, the Republicans were foolish to let the president become the public defender of the very low tax rates for the middle class — the very tax rates the Democrats once opposed. But let me return once more to the blame game.
If the press reports can be believed, it was Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell who kept us from going over the fiscal cliff. He did it by recruiting Vice President Joe Biden to help reach a deal, while the president was vacationing in Hawaii.
I'm not sure what makes Obama tick. I have no idea what motivates him. I have no idea what he is trying to do. I am sure about one thing: in the current fiscal impasse, Barack Obama is the one who is most at fault.
To top it off, David Brooks reminds us of this bizarre fact:
President Obama excoriated Paul Ryan for offering a budget that would cut spending on domestic programs from its historical norm of 3 or 4 percent of G.D.P. all the way back to 1.8 percent. But the Obama budget is the Ryan budget. According to the Office of Management and Budget, Obama will cut domestic discretionary spending back to 1.8 percent of G.D.P. in six years.