Prioritizing deficit reduction is a mistake

PRIORITIZING DEFICIT REDUCTION IS A MISTAKE…. It’s too soon to say what kind of policy agenda the White House might pursue in the next Congress. Much of it will be dictated by the results of the midterms, but unpredictable circumstances are also likely to play a role. Planning ahead at this stage is tricky.

That said, it’s easy to imagine the kinds of things President Obama would like to tackle over the next couple of years. One imagines initiatives that weren’t completed in this Congress will get top billing in the next one — including immigration and energy, for example.

The AP reports that another issue is likely to be on the president’s mind, though I’m hoping the AP piece is wrong.

Preparing for political life after a bruising election, President Barack Obama will put greater emphasis on fiscal discipline, a nod to a nation sick of spending and to a Congress poised to become more Republican, conservative and determined to stop him. […]

Moving to the fore will be a more serious focus on how to balance the federal budget and pay for the programs that keep sinking the country into debt.

In other times, that discussion might seem like dry, Washington talk. Not now. People are fed up with federal spending, particularly as many remain jobless.

Now, I’m not at all sure about the AP report’s assumptions about public attitudes. The article states, simply as a matter of fact, that Americans are “fed up with federal spending,” but I suspect that’s only true in the most shallow and superficial sense. Folks like the idea of spending cuts until they hear about what might actually get the knife. It’s precisely why Republicans refuse to offer any specifics about their spending plans — if they told the truth, they’d lose.

But putting aside the media’s willingness to simply accept GOP frames as fact, I can only hope the White House isn’t taking this deficit reduction effort too seriously.

There’s a reason Democrats are likely to suffer a brutal midterm cycle, and it has nothing to do with the debt — the economy stinks. When unemployment is pushing 10%, the incumbent party gets slammed. When there’s a jobs crisis and billionaires start buying elections for the party that created the crisis, the incumbent party has it even tougher.

But no one really cares about the deficit. They do, however, care about jobs. In tough times, the president will not do himself any favors by taking money out of the economy and undermining public programs that are more important than ever.

It’s not like this is even an area where the White House can find common ground with Republicans — the GOP’s leaders have already made clear that making the deficit much bigger is fine with them, just so long as the money goes to tax cuts for the wealthy.

I know the president has a long to-do list, and the next Congress will be nightmarish if right-wing children are in charge. But that’s all the more reason to get the right priorities in line now. Putting the deficit near the top of the list is a mistake.