There was good reason to think that the whole point of President Obama’s deficit commission was to take the issue of deficits off the table until after the midterm elections. With the commission now unable to reach the 14 votes necessary to force Congress to take up its recommendations, Obama may have succeeded in a strictly technical sense: He punted the issue to a commission, where it went to die.
But that’s an awfully generous read on what happened. You might say that Obama dodged a bullet — that he fired, in an enclosed room, and that’s been ricocheting around him for the last 10 months.The creation of the commission had the effect, as many of us noted at the time, of conceding a large part of the economic policy debate. Obama announced it in February just as the economy was starting to look up, with the administration counting on steady improvement in economic conditions through the election. That turned out to be a fatal forecast.
The effect, not entirely direct but not just coincidental, was for political Washington to shift from focusing on economic recovery to how we were going to pay our long overdue bills. Although those overdue bills were mostly the result of Bush’s disastrous fiscal policy, Republicans and their allies managed to successfully recast the deficit as further “proof” that TARP and the stimulus plan were reckless liberal spending programs rather than critical to saving the economy from collapse.
Along the way, deficits became the obsession of the chattering class and “centrists.” It began to look like the political climate was such that Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles might actually be able to achieve some consensus on a long-term deficit reduction plan. The problem was that the consensus seemed to involve unnecessary and draconian cuts in social programs and very little in the way of smart progressive tax reform.
As it turned out, this shift in focus from economic recovery to deficits actually put the deficit as an issue front and center through the entire election cycle. So now, 10 months later, we still don’t have a economic recovery or a deficit reduction plan (let alone a good one). And with Republicans about to take over the House, there’s no prospect of either one in the near future.