Wiggling room. (photo: NewsHour / flickr)

If President Obama’s obsession over the past three and a half year with reaching a “grand bargain” with Republicans on the deficit left any doubt about what Obama’s second term would be focused on, then his convention acceptance speech should put an end to that.

The speech focused more on what Obama had done than what he plans to do, but one of the very few areas where he talked about going forward was on deficit reduction. From Obama’s nomination acceptance (via NPR)

You can choose a future where we reduce our deficit without sticking it to the middle class. (Cheers, applause.) Independent experts say that my plan would cut our deficit by $4 trillion. (Cheers.) And last summer I worked with Republicans in Congress to cut a billion dollars in spending, because those of us who believe government can be a force for good should work harder than anyone to reform it so that it’s leaner and more efficient and more responsive to the American people. (Cheers, applause.)

I want to reform the tax code so that it’s simple, fair and asks the wealthiest households to pay higher taxes on incomes over $250,000 — (cheers, applause) — the same rate we had when Bill Clinton was president, the same rate we had when our economy created nearly 23 million new jobs, the biggest surplus in history and a whole lot of millionaires to boot.


Now, I’m still eager to reach an agreement based on the principles of my bipartisan debt commission. No party has a monopoly on wisdom. No democracy works without compromise. I want to get this done, and we can get it done.

But when Governor Romney and his friends in Congress tell us we can somehow lower our deficits by spending trillions more on new tax breaks for the wealthy, well — (boos) — what’d Bill Clinton call it? You do the arithmetic. (Laughter, cheers, applause.) You do the math.

I refuse to go along with that, and as long as I’m president, I never will. (Cheers, applause.) I refuse to ask middle-class families to give up their deductions for owning a home or raising their kids just to pay for another millionaire’s tax cut. (Cheers, applause.) I refuse to ask students to pay more for college or kick children out of Head Start programs to eliminate health insurance for millions of Americans who are poor and elderly or disabled all so those with the most can pay less. I’m not going along with that. (Continued cheers, applause.)

And I will never — I will never turn Medicare into a voucher. (Cheers, applause.) No American should ever have to spend their golden years at the mercy of insurance companies. They should retire with the care and the dignity that they have earned. Yes, we will reform and strengthen Medicare for the long haul, but we’ll do it by reducing the cost of health care, not by asking seniors to pay thousands of dollars more.

(Cheers, applause.) And we will keep the promise of Social Security by taking the responsible steps to strengthen it, not by turning it over to Wall Street. (Cheers, applause.)

(emphasis mine)

Obama is in a very tight election at the moment, so this speech would have been a perfect time to set a clear and popular contrast between himself and Romney. Obama could have made an unequivocal promise to protect the social safety net as a juxtaposition to Romney’s plan to cut it. But that is not what he did.

Instead, Obama seemed to go out of his way to leave himself rhetorical wiggle room for embracing cuts later. Obama refuses to cut popular programs to pay for tax cuts for the rich, but he doesn’t flat out refuse to cut these programs. Obama won’t ask seniors to “pay thousands of dollars more” for Medicare but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t ask them to pay less than that. Obama won’t turn Social Security over to Wall Street but he clearly didn’t promise to not cut benefits.

Obama had the option between making bold promises that could help his re-election or using weak phrases that would make it easier for him to push for cuts to entitlements in his second term. Obama choose the latter.

Obama really wants a grand bargain and if he is re-elected that is what he is going to work for.