How is it possible that the president of the United States has decided he does not have to negotiate with the speaker of the House of Representatives over government spending, and yet the public blames the GOP for the current D.C. stalemate?
Like it or not, polls show that two-thirds of Americans view the Republican Party unfavorably (while only 49 percent hold unfavorable attitudes toward the Dems, according to the latest Gallup poll). Worse, Republicans are twice as likely to say they hold unfavorable attitudes toward their own party than Democrats are.
Virtually everyone agrees that the government shutdown hasn't worked the way its advocates intended. While there has been public outrage at some disruptions -- national parks and monuments closed, cancer trials delayed, etc. -- most Americans remain untouched by the shutdown. Federal workers and those who depend on certain government services are the people most affected. The rest of us just go on with our daily lives. Even if failure to raise the debt ceiling poses a more significant threat, most people won't feel it immediately if Congress and the White House fail to come to some agreement.
President Obama can afford to stonewall. He doesn't have to face the voters again. And Democrats have a more reliable voting base than Republicans do. Minorities, single women and the elderly are much more favorably disposed toward government -- and far more dependent on it. Democrats promise to keep the gravy train rolling by soaking the rich. Never mind that there aren't enough rich people to pay for the entitlements Democrats promise down the track, even if government confiscated 100 percent of the income of wealthy taxpayers.
Promising that everyone has to share the pain isn't a popular message -- but that's what Republicans are stuck with. It doesn't matter that they're right. Enough people don't want to hear the GOP mantra that Democrats are safe from paying any price for their failure to rein in entitlement spending.
Once upon a time in Washington, party statesmen could be counted on to rise above purely partisan politics. No more -- and that holds for Democrats every bit as much as Republicans. Where are the cooler heads in the Democratic Party who could persuade the president to deal with the Republicans? Which Democrat is willing to do what Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan did in 1983: take on Social Security entitlements and fashion a bipartisan approach? Which Democrat is willing to admit that Medicare and Medicaid will bankrupt the government if we can't do something to reform these programs?
Speaker John Boehner now has proposed that the GOP House will pass a short-term debt increase if the president agrees to negotiate on the bigger problems of entitlement reform. The ball now rests in the president's court. But it's unclear what he will do.
What Obama should do is take the high road: Welcome Boehner and other Republican leaders into the White House. Sit down at the table and negotiate in good faith. If the president were bold, he could offer long-term reductions in spending on entitlements by raising the retirement age modestly for future retirees. He could agree to changes that would limit automatic increases in Social Security payments in the future. He also could suggest raising the age for Medicare and offer financial incentives to the elderly for improving their lifestyles, such as lower premiums if they lose weight, maintain good glucose and cholesterol levels, and engage in regular exercise.
The president could suggest changes that would deny Medicaid coverage to drug addicts or alcoholics unless they enroll in treatment programs and stop their abuse. The president also could use the bully pulpit in a helpful way by talking directly to the American people and explaining why these changes are necessary.
But the president isn't likely to do any of these things until the public begins to hold him and the Democratic Party at least as responsible as the GOP for the mess the country is in.