Ruth Marcus: Time to be dealmaker in chief

BY RUTH MARCUS Published: March 16, 2013

In the end, he is the one who is going to have to sell the notion of unpopular changes — curbing Medicare spending, reducing Social Security benefits or curtailing popular tax breaks — to a nation that says it wants a balanced bargain but may balk when that bargain is translated into painful specifics. After all, Obama is the only dealmaker with no re-election worries.

For the moment, the White House has decided, in concert with Senate Democrats, to hold back on submitting its budget. Republicans have been howling over the insult to regular budget order; Democrats say the delay is no biggie because the president's blueprint would be dead whenever it arrives.

In a strange way, though, the waiting-for-Obama budget scenario may increase its importance. Will the White House, for example, include its still-on-the-table proposal to change the way Social Security cost-of-living adjustments are calculated? This provision is noticeably absent from the budgets offered by House Republican Paul Ryan and Senate Democrat Patty Murray. For Obama to include it would inflame liberals; to omit it would raise questions about his sincerity.

The delayed budget offers the president the opportunity, if he chooses, not necessarily to split the difference but to sketch out a better way.

Speaking to Stephanopoulos, the president sounded pessimistic about the prospects for such a bargain, and disturbingly unconcerned about failing to reach one. That, he said, would be more missed opportunity than “crisis.”

Perhaps he's posturing; if the president is seen as coveting a deal too much, he won't be able to get the kind he wants. Perhaps it's simple realism; Republicans' refusal to consider revenue raised by curtailing loopholes is unacceptable, and the president shouldn't accept a cuts-only deal.

But failure would not only tarnish Republicans — it would stain Obama's legacy. Great presidential leadership entails figuring out how to deal with even those who do not like you.

WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP