Amid demands from Republicans that President Obama propose detailed new spending cuts to avert the year-end fiscal crisis, his answer boils down to this: you first.
Mr. Obama, scarred by failed negotiations in his first term and emboldened by a clear if close election to a second, has emerged as a different kind of negotiator in the past week or two, sticking to the liberal line and frustrating Republicans on the other side of the bargaining table.
Disciplined and unyielding, he argues for raising taxes on the wealthy while offering nothing new to rein in spending and overhaul entitlement programs beyond what was on the table last year. Until Republicans offer their own new plan, Mr. Obama will not alter his. In effect, he is trying to leverage what he claims as an election mandate to force Republicans to take ownership of the difficult choices ahead.
Ezra Klein has already covered this new Obama, writing that he's stopped negotiating with himself. Paul Krugman agrees:
Here’s where we are right now: As his opening bid in negotiations, Mr. Obama has proposed raising about $1.6 trillion in additional revenue over the next decade, with the majority coming from letting the high-end Bush tax cuts expire and the rest from measures to limit tax deductions. He would also cut spending by about $400 billion, through such measures as giving Medicare the ability to bargain for lower drug prices.
Republicans have howled in outrage. Senator Orrin Hatch, delivering the G.O.P. reply to the president’s weekly address, denounced the offer as a case of “bait and switch,” bearing no relationship to what Mr. Obama ran on in the election. In fact, however, the offer is more or less the same as Mr. Obama’s original 2013 budget proposal and also closely tracks his campaign literature.
So what are Republicans offering as an alternative? They say they want to rely mainly on spending cuts instead. Which spending cuts? Ah, that’s a mystery. In fact, until late last week, as far as I can tell, no leading Republican had been willing to say anything specific at all about how spending should be cut.
In terms of public opinion, President Obama has all the leverage here. Polling shows that voters want tax increases on the wealthy -- even a majority of self-described "conservative Republicans" think tax increases are necessary -- and that if the country does go over the fiscal cliff, it'll be Republicans' fault.
So Republicans already have their backs against the wall and their refusal to name their cuts only makes matters worse for them. Any cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security will be unpopular -- which is why the GOP refuses to name them, instead talking about vague "entitlement spending." If they want to play, they're going to have to ante up and put something on the table. And what they want is not going to win them any new voters. Paul Ryan's budget ideas -- which represent the GOP's vision for America -- are about as popular as e. coli.
"The point is that when you put Republicans on the spot and demand specifics about how they’re going to make good on their posturing about spending and deficits, they come up empty," Krugman writes. "There’s no there there... Republicans claim to be for much smaller government, but as a political matter they have always attacked government spending in the abstract, never coming clean with voters about the reality that big cuts in government spending can happen only if we sharply curtail very popular programs."
It's time for Republicans to put up or shut up, because so far they've done neither.