Taking a page from the Republican playbook, President Barack Obama threw down the gauntlet Monday, saying he would veto any deficit reduction bill that comes up short of giving him 100 percent of what he wants - in this case some $1.5 trillion worth of tax increases on the wealthy and on corporations, mostly through letting the Bush tax cuts expire and closing various tax loopholes.

Taking a page from the Republican playbook, President Barack Obama threw down the gauntlet Monday, saying he would veto any deficit reduction bill that comes up short of giving him 100 percent of what he wants - in this case some $1.5 trillion worth of tax increases on the wealthy and on corporations, mostly through letting the Bush tax cuts expire and closing various tax loopholes.


Right back at him, Republican leaders immediately said any tax hikes would be dead on arrival in Congress.


Assuming the president doesn't bend as he has before, perhaps Americans should begin preparing right now for the automatic cuts set to kick in Dec. 23 if the parties cannot reach agreement - some $1.2 trillion in defense and entitlement spending reductions over the next decade, courtesy of the debt ceiling legislation - while looking to their chance in November 2012, to fix the obvious failure of divided government in America. Let's face it, their competing visions of what's best for the nation - or at least for their core constituencies - and of what constitutes "balance" are irreconcilable.


In fact, both sides have been attempting to preempt the findings of this joint House-Senate supercommittee charged with finding up to another $1.5 trillion in red ink to erase. If you're going to take options off the table or insist on a course of action beforehand, as both sides seem intent on doing, then it undercuts the legitimacy of the effort. If they can't give committee members a blank slate to come up with their own researched and honest conclusions and recommendations, then just forgive Americans for asking, "Why bother?"


Some observations:


Beyond the tax cuts, the president goes soft on entitlement reform, trimming Medicare and Medicaid just a bit while sparing Social Security altogether. To be sure, Social Security is not now contributing to the nation's growing indebtedness, but that still seems a bit incongruous with Obama's desire to continue the payroll tax break that will hasten the day Social Security does add to that burden. Entitlements are the monster in the closet, and at some point, Uncle Sam must confront them. One can trust that the timing will never be quite right to do that.


"Either we ask the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share in taxes, or we're going to have to ask seniors to pay more for Medicare. We can't afford to do both," Obama said. "This is not class warfare. It's math." The president is right that Americans can't have it all and that the math guarantees it, but one is not so sure the choice is quite that stark, or that sacrifice is avoidable for anyone, so dire is the situation.


Obama also would shave more than a trillion by bringing American troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Given the challenges at home, it's a fair position that the nation can no longer afford war abroad, though we may be between a rock and a hard place there: Can we afford not to maintain a military presence in those places? Time will tell.


On the flip side, this page appreciates Speaker of the House John Boehner's concern for "job creators," though that would be considerably easier if more were actually living up to the title. Just as excessive taxation can be counterproductive - businesses pass those costs onto consumers, for example - so austerity measures in isolation can achieve the opposite of what was intended, especially in the short term, as much of Europe is learning.


Hardly anyone talks about actually balancing the budget anymore, just containing the red ink to a more tolerable percentage of gross domestic product. There is little tax fairness, with too many - rich and poor alike - paying nothing or next to it. Meanwhile, the middle class continues to get walloped. Don't expect its members to be buying much of anything - and stimulating the economy - so long as that's the case. All in all, the federal government spends too much in many of the wrong places, the load is distributed disproportionately, and neither party would change the status quo all that much, when all the smoke from the heated rhetoric clears.


That's because the nation lacks leadership that is interested in solutions. It has representatives in abundance who are interested in re-election. The only way to get their attention is to deprive them of that. And what are you left with then? That's the risk.


One would like to think there's a middle ground of pragmatic, non-ideological Americans who are just interested in serving and in problem-solving and then going back home, but it seems they can't survive the primaries, where the absolutists and special interests rule. If that doesn't change, well, get used to an America that just doesn't work, perhaps quite literally. Nothing seems to be working now.


Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.