Should Obama Have Embraced Simpson-Bowles?

The New York Times has a fairly critical feature story today on why the Obama administration couldn’t manage to pull off the “grand bargain” on deficit reduction it spent much of 2011 pursuing. The article, by Jackie Calmes, takes as its launching point the Bowles-Simpson Commission report recommending $4 trillion of cuts over 10 years. As Calmes notes, the White House pointedly did not embrace the report, although it quietly adopted many of the ideas therein during the subsequent private negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner—negotiations that failed, creating for Obama an aura of “political timidity” that has stuck.

Calmes’s piece makes clear that the White House never considered embracing Bowles-Simpson:

For all its subsequent import, Mr. Obama’s initial response to Bowles-Simpson was little debated at the White House, aides say. Not one adviser supported embracing it.

But what’s notable about Calmes’s story is that even though the administration failed to win a deal through its preferred course of low-key negotiations, White House officials appear utterly convinced that their strategy was the correct one. Calmes has Obama himself explaining to Erskine Bowles, the commission co-chairman, that if he had “put his arms around” the plan immediately, it “would have been savaged by Republicans, and that would have killed it.”

Really? Republicans certainly would have attacked the President, but it’s not clear to me that this would have killed the plan. In fact, the very public fight over the payroll tax cut extension last December—a fight the White House won—offers an intriguing counterexample of what might have happened had Obama publicly embraced Bowles-Simpson.

The key factor in the payroll fight was that it wasn’t simply a battle between Democrats and Republicans. Many Senate Republicans supported the extension, so when the White House took the fight public, it did so with bipartisan support, which isolated House Republicans. It helped, of course, that the battle was over tax cuts, which most voters perceive as desirable. But in the end, House Republicans’ obstruction and obstinance weren’t sustainable.

What would have happened had Obama embraced Bowles-Simpson? We know he’d have had some serious Republican supporters on his side, such as Senator Tom Coburn, a commission member who voted for the plan. He’d probably also have had public support—cutting the deficit isn’t quite as popular as tax cuts, but it’s something most voters would like to see. And as in the payroll fight, his public embrace would have isolated House Republicans. White House officials are adamant that Republican attacks would have scotched any deal. And perhaps they would have, although the payroll fight suggests that’s no sure thing. But having struck out in private talks, it’s hard to see how the President would be worse off today had he chosen this course. He’d at least have gotten credit for trying.

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