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Obama Waited For GOP To Reveal Deficit-Reduction Hand Before Showing His

President Obama meets middle school students from a Longmont, Colo. at the White House, April 11, 2011.
Charles Dharapak
President Obama meets middle school students from a Longmont, Colo. at the White House, April 11, 2011.

President Obama, now scheduled to give a major speech Wednesday afternoon at George Washington University on deficit reduction, has been criticized for arriving so late to this particular fiscal-responsibility party.

As has been widely noted, the president didn't fully embrace the results of his Simpson-Bowles fiscal reform commission which in December recommended a series of spending cuts, including reforms of both entitlements and taxes, to reduce the nation's deficits.

Later, when he introduced his own budget for fiscal year 2012, he didn't offer a comprehensive plan to deal with federal deficits and debt either.

By hanging back, the president allowed House Republicans to fill the void with a proposed fiscal 2012 budget that its author, House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan says, would save $6 trillion over ten years, largely by changing Medicare and Medicaid as we know them. But it would also cut taxes, including for the wealthiest, offsetting about $4 trillion of that savings.

The former would essentially become a voucher program for seniors, the latter a block grant to states.

Not only has Obama seemingly allowed Republicans to gain the initiative, according to some commentators, which allowed them to define the terms of the debate; he also left himself open to GOP charges that he failed to lead on one of the biggest issues of our time.

Still, it's possible that it really won't matter much that Obama waited and he could actually wind up benefiting.

First, by waiting until Republicans went public with their major deficit-reduction proposal, the president gave himself a chance to see precisely the approach his political opposition was taking.

Perhaps Obama, known to play poker as a state legislator in Springfield, Ill., first wanted to see the Republican hand before revealing his own.

That provided him the chance to tailor how he presents his proposal. Now he can specifically target the most controversial aspects of the Republican proposal, in particular the restructuring of Medicare so it goes from being a single-payer system to one in which future seniors would receive a subsidy to purchase private health insurance.

White House aides have also indicated that the president will take on the tax cuts for the rich in the GOP proposal by reasserting his position that taxes should rise on couples with $250,000 a year or more in income, a contrast with the GOP.

That will allow the president to argue his proposal is fairer to the middle class and lower income Americans than the Republican approach which cuts programs the less wealthy rely on.

Second, it wasn't as though if he had gone first, his proposal would have fared any better in a Congress where the Republicans control the House and Democrats have a narrow Senate majority than it will now.

There is little to none of what economists call the first-mover advantage in being first in an area of public policy that requires telling voters painful truths.

It would have only given Republican opponents more time to hammer him. Letting the GOP go first allowed them to take the early hammering on deficit reduction.

Third, while Obama made himself vulnerable to charges he didn't lead on the issue, it's hard to imagine most voters in November 2012 either remembering or caring about that.

In any event, the president really could wait no longer. In his Friday night speech after the nation barely dodged a partial shutdown of the federal government, Obama spoke to the importance of dealing with deficits and acknowledged that spending cuts, though painful, were necessary for winning the future, as he might say.

It's also necessary to winning political independents who in poll after poll express concern about government spending and deficits.

Meanwhile, with important and likely angry debates about the fiscal 2012 budget as well as raising the debt ceiling taking center stage in the weeks to come, the president had reached the point where he had to have his own deficit-reduction plan on the table.

That way he and other Democrats wouldn't again be in the position of having to react so much to Republican demands as during the recent shutdown fight.

(Note: This post was revised to make a correction. It earlier said the president would be making a prime-time speech Wednesday. White House press secretary Jay Carney indicated at his Monday briefing the speech will be in the early afternoon.)

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Frank James
Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.