Matt Miller - The Archives
Obama on deficits: The message box vs. the solutions box
The Washington Post, April 13, 2011

Here's the critical thing to understand about the president's big budget speech Wednesday: There's a difference between what political consultants call the "message box" and what I'll call the "solutions box." Obama's message box will work. His solutions box won't. And there, in a nutshell, is why America remains at risk of drift and decline.

In campaigns, political advisers often develop message boxes for candidates to frame the debate on their terms. The idea is to showcase their candidate's most attractive qualities and values, while also playing up their opponents negatives (it's literally a two-by-two box—here's an example). Then they do everything they can to ensure that the media and public see the debate the way the campaign wants it to be seen.

Seen in this light, the president succeeded Wednesday in shaping a message box that puts Obama in a good position to win reelection if (1) he only faces a Republican opponent, and (2) that Republican embraces anything like Paul Ryan's blueprint. But its ability to win the election doesn't mean Obama's framework can solve America's problems and make good on the rhetorical vision the president sketched.

It seems obvious but bears repeating: There is no necessary link between what it takes to win an election and what it takes to address the country's major challenges. And, unfortunately, since the mainstream media cover campaigns stenographically (on the theory that it is the candidates who should get to decide what the campaign will be "about"), this means that between now and November 2012 we'll be treated to dueling attempts by the parties to define the debate on their terms, even if those terms bear no relationship to real answers.

I'll get to a couple of examples in a moment, but recall first that the entire point of the message box is to permit a candidate to broadcast his values and draw sharp contrasts with his opponent. It's a strategy for getting voters to pick you over the other guy.

So when Obama says he wants to cut the deficit by $4 trillion over 12 years, it's an attempt to get the media and the broader political culture to conclude something like this: "Well, both the president and the GOP want to cut the deficit by a huge amount, but it's the way they want to do it that's different." That's the president's overarching message—we all want fiscal responsibility, but there's a "balanced" way to do it, and an "extreme" way.

Once inside that framing, when Obama says that he we won't abandon our commitments to seniors or the poor in order to cut taxes by a trillion dollars for millionaires and billionaires—"not while I'm president!"—he's signaling his values. Values that it's safe to say a large majority of Americans share (and which I do, too—except that this is not the only relevant question.)

Here's the kind of question that will get lost in the unfolding fight: Why is $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 12 years the right goal? The political answer from the White House's point of view is easy. It sure sounds big. It's equal to the Simpson-Bowles commission's target (Obama's goal is met over 12 years, not 10 as the commission proposes, but who's counting?) And it's close enough to Ryan's number to work in the media as a way of establishing the idea that "we both want to get serious."

But as a matter of substance the goal is utterly inadequate. Ryan's "bold" plan, after all, still adds a whopping $6 trillion to the debt in the next decade. We can't tell the precise debt numbers on Obama's new plan from what was available Wednesday afternoon, but if deficits are still going to be well over 2 percent of gross domestic product in the last half of this decade (as a White House fact sheet says), I'm guessing Obama's new framework will rack up $8 trillion or more in fresh debt over the next 12 years. Maybe more, unless some rosy assumptions come to pass.

Why do neither Obama nor the Republicans propose to actually balance the budget much sooner? Because the president and the GOP don't want to tell Americans that taxes on the middle class will have to rise, and benefits trimmed (starting soon, not a decade out, as the Ryan plan does), as the boomers age. With candor ruled out, they're left acting mistakenly as if solvency is the proper goal regarding our debt—how much relative to GDP can we stand before markets go bonkers?—when the real goal should be a budget plan that promotes national renewal. These questions matter because the endless debt that comes with these slow-as-molasses fiscal adjustments means interest payments will continue to drown out other priorities within any given level of spending. Under Ryan's plan, for example, interest soars from around $200 billion to nearly $700 billion a decade hence. Obama's interest black hole will surely be higher.

Having interest on the debt be America's fastest-growing government program in an era of supposedly "epic" deficit reduction plans is more than Orwellian. It's a recipe for national decline. Between the debt vacuum, and the senior citizen benefits vacuum as the baby boomers age, the portion of federal spending devoted to things like infrastructure, research and education will shrivel. No matter how many times you vow to "win the future," if your budget is only funding the past and the present, you don't stand a chance.

Is Obama's framework better than Paul Ryan's? Absolutely. Is it equal to what America needs for renewal in an age of global economic competition? Absolutely not. It's Clinton redux—a recipe for incremental progressive "wins" within a broader context of national erosion.

We need a third choice. We'll never know if a constituency exists in America for a message box that lines up with the solutions box until one is actually offered to the country. We're poised to go through another presidential cycle in which average Americans are told once more that they don't need to participate in getting our fiscal house in order. Yet anyone who looks honestly at the numbers knows this is false. Without doing so, we can't free up the resources both to end our debt spree quickly (once unemployment is down) and to invest meaningfully—not just symbolically—in the future.

The party lines have been drawn. The media will faithfully reflect these dueling message boxes as the "choice." The only question now is whether anyone serious will jump in outside the two-party system to shake things up.