Friday night’s dramatic budget agreement represented a major defeat for President Obama and Congressional Democrats. On substance, John Boehner and Congressional Republicans received $7 billion more in spending cuts than they originally asked for. From a messaging standpoint, the entire debate unfolded on the GOP’s terms (excerpt for a brief interlude concerning Planned Parenthood)—the discussion was about how much to cut, not whether to cut or who would be impacted by such cuts or if such cuts would depress economic growth. The word “jobs” was practically absent from the debate.

Wrote Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent:

By agreeing to steep, if temporary, cuts in advance, Dems acceded to the GOP’s austerity/cut-cut-cut frame at the very outset, and the debate unfolded entirely on that rhetorical turf.

President Obama’s advisers apparently believe that his best route to reeelection is to acknowledge the need for more fiscal discipline, while picking a fight with the GOP over the need for targeted government investment in our future and painting the GOP’s cut-at-all-costs vision as out of the mainstream. In fairness, his advisers, as Paul Krugman noted recently, may very well be right about this.

But it’s still worth appreciating how far to the right the debate has shifted, in part because of Democratic acquiescence. The idea that government spending should be a job-creation tool in our arsenal was entirely marginalized, to the point that it was simply not part of the discussions; meanwhile, the insane conservative demand for $100 billion in cuts was treated as a kind of outer right-wing boundary of legitimate discourse. The result: Giving Boehner more than he originally asked for in cuts became the stuff of middle ground compromise.

Obama, as Krugman, put it: “has effectively surrendered in the war of ideas.” Wrote Krugman today:

Obama is conspicuously failing to mount any kind of challenge to the philosophy now dominating Washington discussion—a philosophy that says the poor must accept big cuts in Medicaid and food stamps; the middle class must accept big cuts in Medicare (actually a dismantling of the whole program); and corporations and the rich must accept big cuts in the taxes they have to pay.

The president is following the example of Bill Clinton after the 1994 election, who brought in Dick Morris to “fast-forward the Gingrich agenda.” Often lost in this story is how Clinton, en route to a balanced budget, fought Gingrich over steep spending cuts and vowed to protect “Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment,” as part of the budget deal. Clinton confronted, then compromised. Obama has fast-forwarded the Boehner agenda with no pushback, even bragging about enacting “the largest annual spending cut in our history.” The president is practically doing Boehner’s job for him!

The White House is obsessed with positioning Obama as a president who stays above the fray during partisan disputes. But the president’s unwillingness to take sides has its own cost. “For Obama, it is not good enough to cast himself as the school principal scolding competing congressional gangs,” wrote Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne. “He needs the courage to defend the government he leads. He needs to declare that he will no longer bargain with those who use threats to shut down the government or force it to default on its debt as tools of intimidation.”

Heretofore, debates over economic policy between Obama and Congressional Republicans have followed a familiar script. Said Jon Cohn of The New Republic:

Obama starts off with a flexible, center-left position. The Republicans start off with a rigid, far-right position. Obama’s commitment to bringing people together seems absolutely sincere; the Republicans’ interest in shredding the welfare state seems absolutely sincere. The two go back and forth, eventually reaching a compromise that is somewhere between the two ideological starting points—which is somewhere on the right.

This week President Obama will deliver a major address concerning the deficit, responding to the plan put forward by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan last week. Ryan, by introducing a truly radical blueprint that would gut the social safety net and drastically redistribute income upwards, has given Democrats a major opening to present an alternative economic vision to the public. But thus far Obama has been content to meet Republicans in the middle, even as the middle moves sharply to the right, instead of laying out a bold economic narrative of his own.

House Republicans are now determining the priorities and direction of the entire US government. Until that changes, Obama and Congressional Democrats will continue to find themselves on the defensive.

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