Hint: It wasn’t extremism from Paul Ryan. Our friend Morgen Richmond goes back to the videotape of the September 2011 talk by Erskine Bowles at the University of North Carolina and finds a direct question from the floor about why the Simpson-Bowles plan went nowhere. After joking that he’d prefer not to answer, Bowles says, “I’ll just tell you the truth.” And the truth is that, despite delivering and even exceeding what Barack Obama and his economic team said they wanted from the President’s own bipartisan advisory commission on deficit reduction and budget reform, Obama refused to champion it:
I got a question here from…not one I particularly want to answer but I will. In your view, what was the primary reason why the deficit commission’s plan was not adopted. It’s a great question, I’ll just tell you the truth.
I didn’t know President Obama as well as I knew President Clinton. And one of the primary things in the business world which you learn is: know your client. And so I spent a lot of time with the President and his economic team trying to make sure we defined success. That was really important to me, I had to know what we had to do in order to get something done. And I had a very firm idea of that, and I can tell you the plan we came forward with not only met the criteria he outlined but it exceeded it in many different ways.
So I expected him, you know, to grab hold of it and say: “Wow – this is great!”. That’s what Clinton would have done. He would have said he made it up. And Al would have said he invented it.
But look, you know, I’ve got empirical data that my political antennae are not that great. And since that time the President has come out and said he likes our plan, he thinks it’s good and he’s for it. And hopefully we’ll end up at the right place that we’ll get at least $4 trillion of deficit reduction. And that’s really the key, you know, it’s not when you get it, or if we get it all at once. It’s…to get it. And what we got to do is bring these two parties together. We got to put the politics aside and we got to do what is right. And what is right is to put our fiscal house in order for these kids.
By September 2011, Bowles thought that Obama had come around on his plan and supported it. Yet the actual budget proposal for FY2013 entirely ignored the Simpson-Bowles recommendations a second time, which led to Paul Ryan’s memorable showdown with Tim Geithner this past February.
Bowles was surprised by this turn of events, and his assumption of what Bill Clinton and Al Gore would have done with their budget is both very amusing and probably very true. Clinton would have not hesitated a moment to use the recommendations to seize the high road in the debate over escalating budget deficits. In fact, Clinton did precisely that, seizing credit for a budget-balancing effort that was much more the result of a GOP-controlled Congress than any initiative on Clinton’s part.
Why didn’t Obama seize that initiative? Clearly, deficit control didn’t interest Obama then, and hasn’t since, either. Obama thought he could seize the issue from the Tea Party with the Simpson-Bowles commission and avoid a disastrous outcome in the midterm elections. Once the disaster occurred, though, Obama dropped deficit control as a talking point and instead began shifting back to a class-warfare strategy, blaming the wealthy for the skyrocketing deficits of his own term.
This is what passes for leadership in the Obama era.
Bear this in mind when Obama talks about budget reform and deficit control in this election. In fact, bear this in mind when Obama refuses to seriously discuss budget reform and deficit control in this election.