I wonder if the story of the midterm elections is what it seems: Tea Party Rejection of President Obama’s policies ushers in a Republican agenda.
In that story, President Obama is either the same old Washington problem, out to use tax-payer money and gov’t power for his own out-of-touch interests or an out-of-control Democrat-Socialist on a wild spending spree. The deficit and debt represent the proof of the irresponsibility of the incumbents, and the new Republicans are the populist heroes who will reign in spending and balance the budget.
But I keep remembering candidate Obama saying “I am not doing this so I can pass the buck on the hard decisions.” Difficult decisions are the ones where you take things from powerful people or make them pay what they cost, rather than offer give-aways.
Leave the financial crisis aside for a moment.
The current President inherited both short-term deficit spending (war, tax cuts, excess gov’t spending, etc. — unpaid for) and long term structural debt (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security going up unsustainably per existing law and future demographics). There are sometimes reasons to borrow money, to spend now and pay off debts later, but the past decade was not WWII. Congress simply spent more than it took in, and it gave gifts such as tax cuts and Medicare benefits by borrowing money.
Along comes Barack Obama, talking about “bending the cost curve.” Significant in the health care reform was removing tax subsidies for generous employer-sponsored health plans. Most Americans get their insurance from employer-sponsored health plans, and this substantial reform, however unpopular, will reduce the costs and waste of excessive medical care. Mr. Obama also approved taking funds out of Medicare. That’s hurting doctors and potentially forcing more cost containment on publicly funded health care for seniors.
The President also talked about reducing earmarks (the first budget under Obama contained earmarks prepared before his innauguration). That hurts corporate interests and the politicians so aligned. Then, Mr. Obama sought to reduce defense spending, with his Secretary of Defense standing up to criticism by congressional and corporate defense interests.
This sure seems like the long-term path of fiscal discipline.
What I’m wondering is, could the Tea Party movement be going in the same direction as the President? Could it be that in order to balance the budget a lot of sacrifices will have to be made? The President started down that path. (The financial crisis brought some unexpected costs — Bush’s TARP and Obama’s Stimulus — but not a recurring give-away). Now, the Tea Party-rejuvinated Republicans are all about cutting spending.
Doesn’t that really put them in the President’s camp? Everyone with an interst, special or otherwise, will argue for their piece of the pie. Tea Party Republicans are proposing to reform earmarks, cut defense spending and balance the budget. They come at the problem as if it was the government that was devouring all the money. But if they stay in the game for long enough, they will see that it’s not that simple.
In that case, President Obama may again appear the reformer: A leader with a clear understanding of what needs to change to create a more sustainable America, waiting for people with integrity and discipline, a willingness to sacrifice, and political courage to join the fight against a system of intrenched interests.
Marc Seltzer is also a contributor to SupremePodcast.com, a weekly U.S. Supreme Court case review podcast. A complete collection of all Marc Seltzer’s writing and podcasts is available at marcseltzer.com.