Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Hope in the Face of the Fiscal Cliff

Michael J. Gerson


November 23, 2012

By Michael J. Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast for the Center for Public Justice on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

With the election over and decided, the winners have no time for a honeymoon. They immediately face a fiscal crisis collectively known as the fiscal cliff. Unless the president and Congress come to an agreement, taxes will broadly rise while defense spending, foreign aid and a social spending will be broadly cut. This would significantly slow an already weak economy. 

And there are some disturbing warning signs in Washington. Elements on both the left and the right see advantages in going over the fiscal cliff—to  make ideological points about spending or taxes or to score political points against their opponents. 

But in the spirit of the season, let’s err on the side of hope. Even if recent experience encourages pessimism, it is possible to make a credible case for optimism. 

First, everyone in Washington knows that the real-world economic stakes are high. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that going over the cliff would reduce economic growth by about three percent, push the nation back into recession and increase unemployment above nine percent. The effects on defense and poverty programs would be dramatic. Both parties know that playing politics will hurt a lot of people. 

Second, it is hard to believe that either party wants to begin a new political season with a massive, bipartisan failure. Each can attempt to blame the other. But the entire political class would suffer another blow to its reputation. President Obama would appear powerless. Congressional Republicans would look intransigent. The politics would be bad for everyone.

Third, the initial meeting between the president and congressional leaders on Friday seemed a genuinely good start. In public and private, the participants were upbeat. The outlines of a potential deal are clear, but not easy for either side. Republicans will need to give ground on revenues. Democrats will need to accept genuine entitlement reform. The devil, of course, is in the details. But the negotiations have begun in the right spirit. 

Fourth, President Obama has a large stake in the success of these negotiations.  A grand bargain on deficits would be an essential element of his legacy. Whatever you think of the content of his policies during the first term, health reform and financial reform were large achievements. A debt deal and immigration reform during his second term would be historical accomplishments that any president would be proud to claim. Obama now has a serious opportunity to achieve both. But his time is limited.

The period immediately following a president’s election or reelection is a chance to achieve big things, but it doesn’t last for long. A year from now, attention will be turning to the midterm elections. Political calculations will inevitably become more narrow and partisan. 

This is the right moment, not just to avoid a fiscal cliff, but to return to long-term, responsible fiscal management. And that would be a serious achievement for any president.  

—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).   

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”