It does not take great leadership — or great skill at deal-making — to do things that already are popular. There is nothing easier than giving people what they want when it does not cost you anything. That is one of the basic problems of American politics.
The news that the budget deficit has returned to a point just a hair shy of the trillion-dollar mark is dispiriting. The Trump administration is rightly proud of its economic record of modest but steady growth accompanied by strong employment and very good growth in wages. But if we cannot get government spending under control during the good times, what hope do we have for the more challenging times? And there will be more challenging times.
Congressional Republicans did make some real progress on spending controls during the Obama years, but it is very difficult to resist revenue-hungry special interests — especially when those interest groups represent big blocs of voters.
And budget reform without presidential leadership is more difficult still. The major drivers of federal spending are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid (along with other health-care subsidies), and national security. President Trump has ruled out pursuing Social Security and Medicare reform out-of-hand. These are very popular entitlements, and particularly popular among some sensitive Republican constituencies. Likewise, military spending is very popular among Republicans, and some conservatives argue, not without reason, that we are not spending enough on the armed services.
We are all for negotiating an extra nickel off every case of pencils the federal bureaucracies order, but the U.S. government is not going to be able to put its fiscal situation on solid footing without addressing the major drivers of spending — meaning entitlement reform.