Michael Gerson

This is not to say the deficit debate is inconsequential. On the current spending path, federal debt will exceed the size of the entire American economy by 2021. Democrats generally believe that the deficit should be confronted by increasing the percentage of the economy taken in taxes. Republicans generally believe that the deficit should be confronted by reducing the percentage of the economy devoted to government spending. In the abstract, the Republican approach is more popular. But it requires cuts in entitlements, which aren't popular.

This disagreement has now been bumped up to the presidential level. Obama will have a large influence on its outcome. But the argument itself has little to do with his immediate political interest in job creation. It is not a matter of taking the right or wrong side; for Obama, it is simply the wrong debate.

The president seems to recognize his predicament. "Of course," he said recently, "there's been a real debate about where to invest and where to cut, and I'm committed to working with members of both parties to cut deficits and debt. But we can't simply cut our way to prosperity."

This argument is also a kind of admission. It indicates how thoroughly Republicans are dominating the political discussion. There is little attention in Washington to anything other than cutting deficits and debt. Obama invited some of this attention by his own spending habits. But this focus has little to do with his urgent need for economic growth. Heading into a presidential election season, Obama is not determining the ground on which the election will be fought.

The next few weeks will bring some must-watch reality television. Can Obama and House Speaker John Boehner work a debt-limit deal involving spending cuts and caps while clearing out some tax preferences and exclusions? Will Boehner be able to sell such an agreement to suspicious House conservatives? Will the speaker need to turn to House Democrats to get the votes he needs? Will Majority Leader Eric Cantor further distance himself from Boehner and take advantage of conservative discontent?

Meanwhile, the Obama administration drifts on a sea of economic events, heading toward a lee shore.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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