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Inside The Beltway

Will Barack Obama Back Down on Science?


By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Elements of pop culture often find their way into the realm of American politics. And the closing days of 2010 were no exception.

Several months before the curtain was about to fall on the first decade of the 21st century, the President had resolved to leave the extension of the Bush tax cuts unresolved until after the November 2010 election. He might not have recognized it at the time, but he was about to walk onto Howie Mandel’s TV sound stage.

Confession: I am neither a gambler nor a couch potato, but occasionally, when no one has been watching, I’ve snuck in a few minutes of vicarious viewing of NBC’s TV game show, “Deal or No Deal,” which Mandel hosts Friday evenings.

For any of you who are even less into pop culture than I am, rest assured the show is the epitome of intellectual vacuousness.  The network touts it as an “exhilarating hit…where contestants play and deal for a top prize of $1 million in a high-energy contest of nerves, instincts and raw intuition.” Watch it some time and be the judge.

Round after round, with the show’s “Banker” offering the contestant a buyout for a sealed suitcase that holds an unknown amount of cash–it might be as little as a penny or as much as a megabuck–a puckish, sleek-suited Howie Mandel, with a gleaming pate, chin puff, and solitary earring, issues the inevitable challenge, “Deal or no deal?”

The contestant’s family and friends, who share the stage, goad the competitor on. “No deal!” they scream. And more often than not, with a high-octane studio audience imploring him to hold firm, the contestant plays on. Win or lose, the audience wants the participant to fight. That’s the American way.

But in the view of liberal Democrats, President Obama, has lost his way. He has been too quick to accept the “Banker’s” offer, they say. He accepted the “deal” on health care, abandoning the public option in the face of conservative opposition. And after having campaigned relentlessly on forcing wealthy Americans to shoulder a larger share of the federal tax burden, he quickly caved into pressure from the right in December and accepted the “deal” to extend all of the Bush tax cuts for the next two years.

How the American public will judge the President’s deal with the Republicans–which included extension of unemployment benefits for thirteen months and a host of tax credits for business, as well as reductions in the estate taxes for the super rich–we probably won’t know until voters have a chance to express their views at the ballot box two years from now. They may give Obama points for pragmatism and prioritizing achievement over ideology. Or they may view him as a weak leader who doesn’t stand up for his principles.

However the President fares in the arena of public opinion, the deal he cut in December is expected to increase the federal debt by almost a trillion dollars over the next two years, making it necessary to slash federal spending by an even greater amount once the economy begins to grow substantially and unemployment begins to drop recognizably. Although Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will represent a large part of the adjustment, discretionary spending will be part of the squeeze on federal outlays.

President Obama has spoken repeatedly about the need for strong investments in science research and education to revive the economy and keep it humming. But every dollar that other policy changes add to the federal debt make that commitment harder to keep.

Make no mistake about it: the days of privilege for science may be coming to an end. Already, the National Science Foundation, which boasts of almost universal support on Capitol Hill, is finding itself in the crosshairs of political snipers. Eric Cantor (R-VA), who will become House majority leader on January 5, has issued a challenge to voters on his website (republicanwhip.house.gov/YouCut/Review.htm). Find NSF grants that are “wasting” taxpayer money, and the House leadership will see to it they are cut.

As much as domestic science may be ripe for increased scrutiny, international projects could become even more suitable for the chopping block. During the 2010 campaign, third party advocacy ads repeatedly attacked federal spending on research taking place on foreign soil.

As increasing numbers of Tea- Party-backed Republicans question the bang the country gets for each federal buck invested in science, the President may once again be faced with the choice of deal or no deal. How he responds and whether former GOP stalwarts join him in their traditional support of research and education remain open questions. If they don’t stand up for science, Europe and Asia will be eating our innovation dinner as well as our lunch.


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Editor: Alan Chodos