Checkmate: President Obama and GOP Rep. Paul Ryan make their moves on how to cut the budget

After congressional leaders reached an 11th hour compromise to prevent a government shutdown, President Barack Obama jaunted up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial the next afternoon to greet tourists and remind them of the integral role government plays in their lives, including keeping national parks open. Simple gestures like this are going to help the White House drive the deficit reduction debate and get credit whether they deserve it or not. I imagine House Speaker John Boehner was sitting in his office, watching Obama on TV and saying, “Damn, why didn’t I think of that?”

But just as one budget battle ended, another started. Republican House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan unveiled his party’s deficit reduction plan, which calls for $4.4 trillion in cuts during the next decade, turns Medicare into a voucher program and actually lowers the income tax for the nation’s wealthiest citizens. This plan is dead on arrival and could cost the Republicans states like Florida in the 2012 election because the Medicare reductions are going to be unpopular among the elderly.

“There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires,” the president said.

Just like Ryan’s budget, Obama is also promising to cut about $4.4 trillion from the federal budget, but his vision stands in stark contrast to Ryan’s proposal. Advocating for a more balanced mix of cuts and tax increases, Obama last Wednesday outlined the four prerogatives of his plan: reducing domestic spending, controlling spiraling health care costs, slashing the Pentagon’s budget and reforming the tax code.

No matter what happens in negotiations, Obama cannot extend the Bush tax cuts again. As brilliant a politician as Obama is, he must be one of the worst chess players in the world. The game has not even started and he is already sacrificing his pawns. The president has made too many concessions up front. For instance, he said he will accept a compromise to increase the debt ceiling this summer. Programs like the National Endowment for the Arts might not mean anything to the president, but Democrats should pretend they do so they can be used as bargaining chips in negotiations.

The worst thing Obama can do is give in to Republican demands by not raising taxes again like he did in December when he extended the Bush tax cuts for even the wealthiest Americans. As much as the Republicans resist, tax increases have to be part of the remedy.

In an op-ed for the Washington Post, former presidential candidate Walter Mondale wrote, “We will not be able to control our budget deficits without raising taxes. That simple reality has brought us to a moment of truth in American politics. President Obama’s speech Wednesday lived up to that moment, and now Democrats and Republicans in Congress must take a similar stand.”

Mondale understands the hazards of asking for tax increases during an election year. He lost to Ronald Reagan in 1984 after firmly standing behind his promise to increase taxes if elected. Obama has to do the same thing. Many political pundits claim Obama’s address was the start of the 2012 race. In reality, Obama has been courting voters since day one. The next few months will be his moment of truth: Can he persuade the public to accept tax increases or will he be another semi-successful one-term president?

It may sound callous to refer to the budget debate as a game with winners and losers because people’s well-being is at stake. However, budgeting is a zero-sum game. The budget compromise reached two weeks ago came too close to the wire for either side to claim victory. That will not happen again this summer. There will be clear winners and losers. The Obama administration cannot expect to “win the future” if they do not win the current budget battle.


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