Has Obama failed to lead on the deficit?

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Critics say Obama has failed to make entitlement reform a priority.
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Critics say Obama has failed to make entitlement reform a priority.

As the prospect of deep spending cuts gallops closer to reality, Obama's approach to the sequester has been questioned

Unless a dramatic compromise is reached in the coming days, $1.2 trillion in spending cuts — known as the sequester — will begin to take effect on Friday, equally split between the Defense Department and discretionary spending programs over the next 10 years. The White House and government agencies have warned of a parade of horribles that will occur if the cuts aren't averted: Job losses for teachers, law enforcement officials, and defense contractors; a lack of vaccines for children; flights delayed or canceled — the list goes on. And the economy is sure to take a hit, writes Jonathan Cohn at The New Republic:

The recovery is already pretty weak. Taking money out of it, which is what the sequester cuts would do, would make it weaker. Nonpartisan analysts, including those at the Congressional Budget Office and private firms like Macroeconomic Advisers, predict that the sequester cuts would reduce growth by anywhere from a half to a full percentage point in the next year. That would probably reduce the number of jobs in the economy by a few hundred thousand. [New Republic]

In recent days, Republican lawmakers have tried to argue that the cuts are a pittance, citing the fact that they represent only a fraction of the deficit. "There are easy ways to cut this money that the American people will never feel," Sen. Tom Coburn claimed on Fox News. However, the sequester targets discretionary programs, not the real drivers of the deficit, Medicare and Medicaid. And discretionary programs, which basically compose the entirety of federal government spending besides health care and Social Security, are badly stretched.

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Republican governors appear to agree, warning on Monday that the sequester would be devastating to their states. And, naturally, they blamed President Obama for not leading on the issue. "It is time for the president to roll up his sleeves and stop campaigning," said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, after joining other governors in a meeting with Obama at the White House. "The election is over."

The editorial board of The Washington Post echoed that statement, saying that Obama has failed to take entitlement reform seriously:

[W]hy is Mr. Obama not leading the way to a solution? From the start, and increasingly in his second term, Mr. Obama has presented entitlement reform as something he would do grudgingly, as a favor to the opposition, when he should be explaining to the American people — and to his party — why it is an urgent national need. [Washington Post]

The problem, liberals argue, is that Obama has proposed the kinds of entitlement reforms that deficit scolds so fervently desire. According to the White House, Obama's plan would reduce the deficit by $1.8 trillion over the next 10 years — more than the sequester — by reducing health-care spending and raising new revenue, among other measures. The Democratic Party is also the only party in Congress in the past four years that has passed any kind of entitlement reform, in the form of ObamaCare — which is what Mitt Romney referred to during the campaign when he said Obama had "stolen" more than $700 billion from Medicare.

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In other words, it's clear that Obama has offered, and even enacted, entitlement cuts. The main sticking point is that he has also demanded revenue, a popular position among voters that happens to be a nonstarter for most Republicans in Congress. And the White House is betting that when the sequester's cuts start to inflict pain, Republicans will finally relent on taxes, according to Brian Beutler at Talking Points Memo:

If [Republicans] hold out through the month of March, the government really will shut down, just like it did in 1995, and the pressure on them to cave will amplify. But if they hope to end the standoff before then, it will likely require a party leader — or perhaps a GOP governor or two — to drag the rank and file in a more sensible direction. [Talking Points Memo]

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