Forget Politics as Usual, It's Time to Change the Language of Fiscal Compromise

by: Diane Lim Rogers

Let’s face it:  expectations for what President-elect Obama can do to “rescue” our economy are very, very high. 

CNN’s Elaine Quijano suggests that Obama will live up to our expectations if he follows through on everything he’s promised on the campaign trail:

When it comes to priorities, many polls suggest Americans want President-elect Barack Obama to fix the economy first when he enters the Oval Office in a little more than two months.

Getting Congress to approve tax cuts promised on the campaign trail may be a good start toward tackling the problem, analysts say. If that goes well, experts say, the political momentum will help make it easier for Obama to keep his other campaign promises on alternative energy and getting health care for millions.

“In Washington, winning leads to winning, and losing breeds losing,” said Stuart Rothenberg of the nonpartisan The Rothenberg Political Report.

But is that the way President-elect Obama will really be our “Superman” on the economy?  Does it take a “superman” kind of leadership to stick to campaign proposals that were laid out long before the current economic crisis?  And does it take a “superman” ability to say “yes” to any other deficit-financed proposals that will come his way?

Will President-elect Obama’s amazing ability to inspire and unite be wasted by staying on the “politics as usual” course, where fiscal “compromises” typically amount to “I get my (deficit) spending if you get yours”?  Or does President-elect Obama understand the need to get back to “living within our means”–which means “living”, yes, but which also means caring about fiscal responsibility, in a broader sense?  Could Obama’s “superman” ability to inspire and unite be used to encourage the politicians to change their language of fiscal compromise to “I will sacrifice this bit of (deficit) spending I wanted if you sacrifice some of yours–for the sake of our and our children’s economic security” ?

Didn’t we just hear President-elect Obama say in his victory speech:

This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were.

It can’t happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice.

As the Washington Post’s Lori Montgomery reports, everyone’s already lining up to ask President Obama for money, arguing that that’s what he can best do as our “Superman”–but there are still some who understand that it’s a fiscally-responsible approach our economy really needs for the long haul:

“You can do your energy plan. You can do a massive infrastructure investment that includes rebuilding schools and repairing schools. You can do public housing that helps poor people and gets the construction guys going,” said Robert Borosage, president of the liberal Institute for America’s Future. “There are a whole range of things that are progressive that liberals want that can come under this shelter” of stimulating the economy.

On the downside, stimulus spending will further bloat a budget deficit that already is spiraling toward a record $1 trillion in the fiscal year that began last month. And key lawmakers said they will demand that Obama keep his promise to restore fiscal responsibility to Washington by paying for any other new programs, including his marquee proposals, to permanently cut taxes for the middle class and to offer health-care coverage to the uninsured.

Democratic leaders “believe there’s a need for stimulus. But we also need to focus very carefully on the deficit in the long term,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). “We feel very strongly that we’ve done a lot of debt incursion, a trillion dollars this year. It’s probably necessary in the short term. But unless we get a handle on the long-term debt, it will do permanent harm to the country.”

Lori Montgomery goes on to quote my boss Bob:

Like his GOP opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Obama “made campaign promises that didn’t add up, and everybody knows they didn’t add up,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonprofit group that advocates deficit reduction. “He could say, ‘The situation is very bad, and I can’t do everything I wanted to do.’ And I think everyone would then breathe a sigh of relief and say, ‘Now let’s get down to work.’ ”

But others said abandoning the tax cuts would be politically devastating.  

And so that’s where I think we really need President-elect Obama to come through as our true “fiscal superhero”:  we need him to courageously pursue wise, fiscally-responsible ideas which may at first seem politically unwise, but which through his giftedness as a leader, a communicator, and a uniter, he can turn into politically popular ideas as well.