President Obama on Tuesday adamantly defended his decision not to offer bold proposals to rein in Medicare and Social Security or overhaul the tax code in his 2012 budget, arguing that only a bipartisan effort would succeed.
The experiences of the past four presidents often bear that out.
Obama cited Ronald Reagan's work with Democrats to rescue Social Security in 1983 and Bill Clinton's work with Republicans to balance the budget in 1997. "When it comes to difficult choices about our budget and our priorities, we have found common ground before," he said.
Grappling with a budget $1.6 trillion out of balance, and the specter of Medicare headed toward insolvency in 2029 followed by Social Security in 2037, the president said an "Obama plan" wouldn't help as much as a "negotiation process."
"My goal here is to actually solve the problem. It's not to get a good headline on the first day," he said. "This is not a matter of 'you go first' or 'I go first.' This is a matter of everybody having a serious conversation about where we want to go, and then ultimately getting in that boat at the same time so it doesn't tip over."
Negotiations have worked best over the past 30 years on the toughest fiscal policy issues -- the budget, taxes, health care and Social Security:
*Reagan tried and failed to overhaul Social Security in 1981. Only when he joined with Democratic House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill in 1983 was potential insolvency averted.
*George H.W. Bush worked with congressional Democrats in 1990 on a deficit-reduction agreement that included both spending cuts and tax increases. Bush acted boldly to accept tax hikes he had vowed to oppose -- but paid a political price at the polls in 1992.
*Clinton tried to force through Congress his own prescription for the nation's health care cost and coverage problems in 1994, and it ended in a debacle, even with his fellow Democrats in control. His 1993 deficit-reduction plan, heavy on taxes, was more successful because he worked with Congress -- but it cost some House Democrats their seats. The issues helped Republicans take over Congress in 1995.
*George W. Bush sought to overhaul Social Security in 2005, partially by allowing workers to create private investment accounts. Democrats trashed the plan, and it died in Congress.
Two of Obama's major efforts in his first two years in office -- the $814 billion economic stimulus law of 2009 and the health care law approved last March -- were opposed by nearly all Republicans.
"Because he proposed it, they had to vote against it," said Alice Rivlin, former director of both the White House and congressional budget offices.
"There is actually quite a long history of this. He's right to be wary," Rivlin said. "If he really wants to get a solution, at least a partial solution to the rising debt problem and the increase in entitlements, he's got to be very careful not to get out front."
Robert Reischauer, another former Congressional Budget Office director involved in past deficit-reduction negotiations, said the political environment is too "toxic" right now. "The most likely path to success is for the leadership in both parties to sit down in a dark basement room and figure out among themselves where the limits are," he said.
House Republicans have vowed to lead where the president isn't. Speaker John Boehner and others said Tuesday their 2012 budget proposal "will include real entitlement reforms, so that we can have a conversation with the American people about the challenges we face and the need to chart a new path to prosperity."
Republicans who worked at the White House and in Congress during past efforts acknowledged Tuesday that presidential leadership can backfire.
"The person who leads with his chin usually gets hit pretty hard," said Bill Hoagland, the top Senate Republican staffer on fiscal issues for many years.
"I understand where he's coming from," Hoagland said. But "when you have a $1.6 trillion deficit, I think it requires presidential leadership."
Former senator Judd Gregg, who retired last year as the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, said Obama had the bipartisan work of his own fiscal commission to fall back on. The 18-member panel, including Gregg, recommended nearly $4 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade, compared with Obama's $1.1 trillion.
"All the bipartisan work has been done," Gregg said. He acknowledged that "the first person to step out gets shot. But it is the president's job to do that."
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