In Campaign Mode Now

Washington – The official announcement came the week before, but President Obama's deficit speech marked the real launch of his re-election campaign — with the odd spectacle of leaders of the opposition party sitting front and center listening to the candidate.

I'm not suggesting the speech was a mere exercise in political posturing. The president, in my view, is sincere about wanting to deal with the debt. But he is also realistic about the slim chances of forging a comprehensive agreement before the election, and, you might say, not unmindful of the impending campaign.

The White House surely did not increase its odds of success (fiscal, not electoral) when it invited Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan to sit in the front row and listen to the president bash his plan as unserious and lacking in courage. Ryan responded in kind, describing the speech as “excessively partisan” and “hopelessly inadequate” in dealing with the deficit. “Rather than building bridges, he's poisoning wells,” Ryan said of the president.

Angry rhetoric notwithstanding, the debt ceiling will be lifted this spring because both sides understand the alternative is unthinkable. They will manage to reach agreement on enough deficit reduction measures to get a ceiling deal done but, in all likelihood, not much more. One possibility: agreement on deficit targets, perhaps combined with an enforcement mechanism. The more difficult details of how to achieve them would be put off until after the election.

The president likes to describe himself as an optimist, but the White House seems to hold out little real hope for reaching a broader agreement before then. The pessimism and frustration are understandable: they are dealing with a party that, absent a few brave souls such as the Republican members of the Gang of Six (Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo), appears unwilling to accept that tax increases must be part of the bargain.

Part of the president's speech was aimed at trying, once again, to set the historical record straight: The current pile of debt reflects less the spending that occurred on Obama's watch than the Bush legacy of enormous tax cuts accompanied by deficit-financed wars and an unfunded new entitlement in the form of the Medicare prescription drug plan. It is hard to see, absent more Republican realism about the need for new revenue, a workable solution.

This leaves the president happy — eager, really — to run on the distinctions he drew Wednesday. In the absence of a real Republican opponent, or even a clear front-runner, Obama has chosen Ryan. In his speech, the president just happened to note that the Ryan plan had been “embraced by several of their party's presidential candidates.”

Obama's electoral course was, to a large extent, predestined by the deal to extend all the Bush tax cuts for two years, which sets them to expire just after the 2012 election. In agreeing to the extension, the president guaranteed that the election would be focused on the question of taxes, and specifically whether the upper-income tax cuts should be allowed to expire.

The debt discussion sets the tax issue in the larger context of the proper role of government and how it should function in an age of austerity. This tees up the election campaign on a more comfortable terrain for Obama and fellow Democrats than the simple taxes-up-or-down argument. Instead, the debate becomes how to preserve a safety net and other government programs that enjoy enormous popularity.

“We don't have to choose between a future of spiraling debt and one where we forfeit our investment in our people and our country,” Obama said. “To meet our fiscal challenge, we will need to make reforms. We will all need to make sacrifices. But we do not have to sacrifice the America we believe in.”

He described the Republican-Ryan vision in grim terms, a Blade Runner world of crumbling roads and bridges, college out of reach, grandparents kicked out of nursing homes, families with autistic children unable to afford health care.

In case you didn't get the election context, Obama made it explicit. Twice he vowed that he would not let the Republicans have their way. “It's not going to happen as long as I'm president,” he said.

It was easy to imagine the campaign crowds — fired up, ready to go and chanting along.