The “fiscal cliff” is a massive failure of presidential leadership. The tedious and technical negotiations are but a subplot in a larger drama. Government can no longer fulfill all the promises it has made to various constituencies. Some promises will be reduced or disavowed. Which ones? Why? Only the president can pose these questions in a way that starts a national conversation over the choices to be made, but doing so requires the president to tell people things they don’t want to hear. That’s his job: to help Americans face unavoidable, if unpleasant, realities. Barack Obamahas refused to play this role.
Instead, he has cast the long-term budget problem as a question of whether the richest 1 percent or 2 percent of the population should pay more in taxes. Not only that, but he has insisted that the higher taxes be paid by raising rates, as opposed to reducing various tax breaks (deductions, exemptions, preferential rates) enjoyed heavily by upscale Americans. The obsession with rates is bad policy (higher rates may threaten risk-taking, work effort and hiring) but qualifies as good politics: It signals Obama is macho; he’s tough on the rich, who are implicitly blamed for the nation’s budget and economic woes…
Of course, Obama would offend many Democrats if he entertained benefit cuts in Social Security and Medicare: higher eligibility ages, higher premiums for affluent elderly, structural changes in the health-care system to reduce costs. Just as many Republicans don’t want taxes raised a penny, many Democrats don’t want benefits cut a penny. Consider the highly technical proposal to shift from the standard consumer price index (CPI) to a “chained” CPI to adjust Social Security benefits. From 2013 to 2022, this change is estimated to reduce Social Security spending by $100 billion. Over that decade, total Social Security benefits are estimated at $10.588 trillion; the cut would be less than 1 percent. Yet, many Democrats reacted in horror, as if hordes of elderly would be impoverished.