Republicans and conservative commentators would accuse Mr. Obama of pandering to his liberal base; centrist Democrats would call the moment a missed opportunity, when Mr. Obama should have put down his fiscal marker.
“There were lots of ways he could have grasped hold of it and used the fact that we had Republican support for it — and even conservative Republicans’ support — without completely walking away from it,” Mr. Bowles said.
Mr. Simpson was similarly disappointed. But he said Mr. Obama’s endorsement would never have won over Republicans, and might have been toxic. When it comes to Mr. Obama, Mr. Simpson said, “Their venom is even better than rattlesnake fangs.”
Debate Over Emphasis
In early January, with Mr. Obama’s State of the Union address and annual budget request weeks away, aides debated what more he might say.
They agreed his emphasis would be on “winning the future” — a new slogan for investments in education, infrastructure and technology. But officials recall economic advisers like Jacob J. Lew, then the budget director, pressing Jon Favreau, the chief speechwriter, for more on deficit reduction.
Opposition from Congressional Democrats scotched economic advisers’ idea of proposing to change the cost-of-living formula for Social Security, something Bowles-Simpson had urged. And Mr. Favreau pushed back to keep the speech broad, with support from Mr. Axelrod, and finally Mr. Obama.
“From the very beginning, we were very much supportive of the direction of Bowles-Simpson, but we had some reservations on specifics,” Mr. Lew said. Had Mr. Obama adopted its proposed $1 trillion in military savings over 10 years and $2 trillion in revenues, he said, “it would have been explosive” to Republicans.
But in hindsight, some advisers say Mr. Obama perhaps should have moved earlier to seize the high ground on deficit reduction and outline the proposals he would unveil in April. Other advisers say the administration simply was not ready. It was locked in a war over 2011 spending with Republicans, who threatened to shut down the government.
That spring, Mr. Ryan produced his budget, which had little in common with the Bowles-Simpson plan. Indeed, Mr. Bowles and Mr. Simpson objected that it would spare the military, weaken the safety net and slash taxes so much that deficits would persist for decades. Opponents staged protests, and Republicans, already dropping in polls, were fighting a losing battle for a special House election that turned on opposition to a Ryan proposal to make Medicare a voucher system.
At the White House, the Republicans’ troubles raised hopes for eventual compromise.
Mr. Daley, the new chief of staff, opened private lines to leading Republicans. Mr. Obama traded calls with Senator Tom Coburn, one of Congress’s most conservative Republicans, a member of the Bowles-Simpson majority who had joined a bipartisan “Gang of Six” senators struggling to write its recommendations into legislation.
Days before the House passed the Ryan budget, Mr. Obama unveiled his deficit-reduction framework at George Washington University. Loosely based on Bowles-Simpson, it similarly called for up to $4 trillion in savings, over 12 years instead of 10; for a ratio of $2 in spending cuts for every $1 of revenues; for all spending to be on the table, including military and entitlement programs, and for strict budget rules.
He proposed to “build on the fiscal commission’s model” — slashing popular tax breaks “so that there’s enough savings to both lower rates and lower the deficit.” But Mr. Obama, who to date has suggested few specifics, would raise fewer new revenues than Bowles-Simpson because he refuses to increase taxes on those who make less than $250,000 annually, though many economists say all Americans will have to pay more eventually. Despite liberals’ opposition, Mr. Obama called for unspecified changes in Social Security to ensure its long-term solvency. And he directed Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to negotiate with Congress.
What captured attention, however, was his attack on the Ryan plan.