In November 2011, just months after he signed the bill creating automatic "sequestration" spending cuts, President Obama did not mince words about the need to put them into effect. "[S]ome in Congress are trying to undo these automatic spending cuts," he said. "My message to them is simple: No. I will veto any effort to get rid of those automatic spending cuts to domestic and defense spending. There will be no easy off-ramps on this one."
It was believed at that time that Republicans would do whatever it took to prevent defense cuts. But now that they have dropped all objections to call his bluff, it's Obama who is looking for the off-ramp.
White House officials on Tuesday said they want new tax hikes and temporary spending cuts to replace sequestration cuts. Republicans should not engage him in his too-clever-by-half attempt to avoid the consequences of his own actions. The sequester was, after all, an idea that originated in the White House to solve the debt-ceiling crisis of 2011, according to the reporting of the Washington Post's Bob Woodward.
Obama recently announced that he would not negotiate any deal with Congress in which even modest spending cuts become a condition for raising the federal government's debt limit. This underscores even further why Republicans must be completely willing and ready to let the sequester happen.
During the last crisis -- the one over the automatic increase in tax rates -- we observed that Republicans had no leverage and were better off cutting a deal that gave Obama much of what he wanted. But we also noted that the GOP would have serious leverage later on. That moment has arrived. If Obama wants to avoid sequestration, Republicans should force him to accept the long-term entitlement reforms he so studiously avoided during his first term.
On Tuesday, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported that the aging population, rising Medicare costs, and Obamacare's new subsidies and Medicaid expansion have created a perfect storm: "Unless the laws governing those programs are changed ... debt will rise sharply relative to GDP after 2023."
Gross federal debt, now about $16 trillion, will rise to $26.1 trillion by 2023, and after that, it will rise even faster. As grim as this may sound, the CBO report also contains good news. "Deciding now what policy changes to make to resolve that long-term imbalance would allow for gradual implementation, which would give households, businesses, and state and local governments time to plan and adjust their behavior."
But America is running out of time for gradual implementation of entitlement reform. If nothing is done about entitlements now, the problem will truly get out of hand. Within a few years' time, Americans will be forced to accept drastic and painful austerity measures that make the sequester look pleasant, probably combined with much higher levels of taxation.
A trade of entitlement reforms for sequestration can serve everyone's interests. It would allay Democrats' fears about short-term spending cuts during a period of high unemployment. It would satisfy Republicans' desire to solve the structural problems with the government's finances, which cannot be solved through discretionary cuts alone -- not even through zeroing out the Pentagon's budget in perpetuity.
After four years in office, Obama has yet to show he is sufficiently responsible to make the hard choices he is always talking about. It's no secret why -- entitlement reform will be politically damaging for all involved. But if Obama wants to leave any sort of positive legacy, this is his chance to make a deal.