Old and busted: “a framework for a conversation.” New hotness: Deficit commission plans as policy. In his sudden desire to play defense against Rep. Paul Ryan and avoid the leadership vacuum that has plagued the White House on budgets and deficits, Obama has reached into his wastebasket to breathe new life into a plan that his team dismissed in February as merely a conversation piece:
President Obama plans this week to respond to a Republican blueprint for tackling the soaring national debt by promoting a bipartisan approach pioneered by an independent presidential commission rather than introducing his own detailed plan.
Obama will not blaze a fresh path when he delivers a much-anticipated speech Wednesday afternoon at George Washington University. Instead, he is expected to offer support for the commission’s work and a related effort underway in the Senate to develop a strategy for curbing borrowing. Obama will frame the approach as a responsible alternative to the 2012 plan unveiled last week by House Republicans, according to people briefed by the White House.
Letting others take the lead on complex problems has become a hallmark of the Obama presidency. On health care, last year’s tax deal and the recent battle over 2011 spending cuts, Obama has repeatedlywaited as others set the parameters of the debate, swooping in late to cut a deal. The tactic has produced significant victories but exposed Obama to criticism that he has shown a lack of leadership.
That’s a polite way of saying that this President doesn’t seem terribly interested in policy or hard work. Obama could have grabbed the mantle of deficit reform by using the commission’s report to build his FY2012 budget request. After all, the Simpson-Bowles panel was his creation. Instead, Obama offered the usual spend-and-spend-some-more budget two months ago and junked the commission report, drawing derision even from his supporters in the national media.
Falling back to Simpson-Bowles makes sense for Obama in some ways. It has more bipartisan heft, for one thing, than his earlier plan, which had almost no credibility at all. Having ceded the initiative to Ryan, Obama needs to find a way to start looking like a leader again, and the Simpson-Bowles plan has some good ideas in it — some of which are in Ryan’s plan, too. He needs more political cover for tax increases he’ll propose, and Obama doesn’t want to stand alone on that platform with a re-election campaign starting.
Having said all that, it doesn’t exactly look like leadership to fish a report out of the trash and call it a new idea. If Obama thinks that Simpson-Bowles was so terrific, why did he round-file it two months ago and issue a budget request that almost entirely refuted it? And why should anyone believe he’d stick with the cuts Simpson-Bowles demands after giving it that vote of no confidence in February?