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In debt talks, Obama as grown-up in the room

By John P. Avlon, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: Obama has pointed out that ideological inflexibility thwarts problem-solving
  • He says Obama said he's willing to take heat from his party to get deal; GOP should bend, too
  • He says GOP has repeatedly left talks over revenue increases they said were tax increases
  • Avlon: Republicans campaigning against deficit and debt but stalling any plan to deal with it

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America."

(CNN) -- The enemy of problem-solving in politics is ideological inflexibility.

That is the case President Obama made to the American people on Monday as ongoing debt and deficit talks try to stop the nation from default on August 2.

The president essentially called the bluff of conservatives who constantly call for action on the deficit but are making a habit of walking away from ambitious deals.

To strengthen his credibility as the "adult in the room," President Obama repeatedly asserted his willingness to stand up to liberal activist groups in pursuit of a grand bargain. "I'm prepared to take on significant heat from my party to get something done," he said, "and I expect the other side should be willing to do the same thing if they mean what they say."

He ruled out a short-term deal that would kick the debt ceiling debate down the road a few months. He also sought to calm markets by saying he believed that a deal would be reached before the United States defaulted on its obligations for the first time in our history.

Obama: No short-term debt deal

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Let's begin with some basic nonpartisan math: Dealing with the long-term deficit and debt requires spending cuts, revenue increases and entitlement reform. Economic growth is the additional X-factor. The result will be America back on sound fiscal footing.

Divided government means that one side cannot insist on what Obama called "my-way-or-the-highway" negotiations and expect to get anywhere other than up against a brick wall.

To seed the ongoing negotiations, Obama was complimentary to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, praising him as "a good man that wants to do right by the country," while adding that "the politics that swept him into the speakership were good for a midterm election but bad for governing." This is both fair and balanced -- a welcome break from the politics of personal destruction that have become commonplace in both DC and the hothouse of partisan media.

There is indeed evidence that Boehner wants to achieve the grand bargain as much as Obama, but he faces deep resistance from the most conservative members of his conference when it comes to any revenue increase. This makes negotiations -- which require some degree of compromise -- politically difficult, if not impossible.

The obvious solution would be to pass a tax reform that would close loopholes while keeping current low rates in place (and possibly even reducing a few select rates, like the corporate tax, in the process).

Tax loopholes are essentially earmarks placed in the tax-code (such as tax breaks for oil and gas companies), and closing them should be a comparatively easy bipartisan task. But when Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor redefines closing tax loopholes as tax increases because simplifying the code could raise revenue, he makes a mockery of the whole concept. His insistence that tax loophole closures be essentially deficit neutral ignores the entire reason we are embarking on this forced fire drill: to reduce the deficit.

Republican presidential candidates have lately been doubling down on the dumb by running against the deficit but opposing raising the debt ceiling, which would only deepen the fiscal hole we're in. Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann have been among the most vocal, with Pawlenty recently saying, "I hope and pray and believe they should not raise the debt ceiling."

This faith-based approach to fiscal responsibility offers insight into why the Economist magazine -- always an honest broker -- recently called the far-right stand "economically illiterate and disgracefully cynical." Far-right Republicans are playing a dangerous political game. Raising the debt ceiling has always been a routine matter; refusing to authorize it is not taking a stand for fiscal responsibility; it is refusing to pay a bill after making the purchase.

The rhetoric of fiscal discipline has long united the Republican Party and helped it build bridges with independent voters. But the historical evidence suggests Republicans care the most about reducing deficits and debt when a Democrat is in the White House.

After initially expanding federal spending in an attempt to stimulate the economy, President Obama is now the one pushing the biggest dollar deal in terms of reducing the deficit and the debt -- some $4 trillion, with a combination of spending cuts, revenue increases and entitlement reforms. You could anticipate that the liberal activists will oppose this. But conservative Republicans are the ones walking away from this deal as they have over and over again.

After all, the so-called backup plan -- a reported $2 billion cut that was being negotiated by Vice President Biden, Republican Senator John Kyl and Majority Leader Eric Cantor -- was scuttled when Kyl and Cantor walked out of talks weeks ago.

Likewise, the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson plan failed to draw enough votes when the Republican House members on the commission, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Jeb Hensarling of Texas, refused to sign on to the ambitious plan in December.

All this shows a party that wants to campaign against the deficit and debt but refuses to back any bipartisan plan to actually deal with it. Ideological inflexibility is no way to negotiate in a democracy: It makes reasoning together all but impossible.

President Obama is catching a lot of flak from his left for even offering entitlement reform and spending cuts as part of a grand bargain. But in doing so, he is showing himself to be a responsible chief executive committed to good faith negotiations.

In the past, President Obama was criticized for being too deferential to Nancy Pelosi & Co. when it came to congressional spending. He has likewise been criticized for being too aloof and detached, inevitable in a "No-Drama Obama."

But in these negotiations, President Obama is proving he can stand up to the far left as well as the far right. It takes such a stand to catalyze real negotiations that can get our government to work again. This is what we pay our presidents for: to look out for the national interest while the parties pander to their respective special interests.

Forging a grand bargain on the deficit and debt takes political courage. It is the political courage to reach across the aisle, recognizing that every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. It is the political courage that believes we can still achieve great things if we reason together -- not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans first. It is the kind of political courage that we have the least of right now in our politics, and those who are willing to stand up for it deserve to be called leaders.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

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