WASHINGTON -- President Obama left town and promptly got backed into the deepest corner of his still-young political life here. He now -- finally, unavoidably -- has some irreconcilable choices to make. How he makes them will define the rest of his term, his chances in 2012 and even the ultimate meaning of his presidency.
Although the Tea Party views the president as an incorrigible leftist, the fact is that Obama sold much of his agenda on the theory that activism in government could in fact save money. He also accepted much of the Reagan orthodoxy on tax cuts, or at least accepted the political reality of their popularity.
But now numbers -- fiscal and political -- are inescapably forcing him to choose. You simply cannot extend all of the Bush-era tax cuts, fight one and a half wars abroad and a security war at home, and hold Social Security, Medicare and other educational and health programs together and more or less unharmed.
As the accountants say, it doesn't "pencil."
Meanwhile, the annual deficit is running at a trillion plus, the debt ceiling will have to be raised above 15 or 16 trillion next spring, and Ben Bernanke at the Fed is running into global opposition to his plan to add vigor to the American economy by pumping more (borrowed) money into it.
And the president is facing an excruciating political calculus as well. In the new 112th Congress, his party's middle will disappear; Nancy Pelosi and her band will fight furiously to protect the New Deal/Great Society legacy; in the Senate, a dozen or so Democrats facing reelection are going to be eager or at least willing to cut deals with a remorseless and fairly unified GOP.
The White House has so far not taken a truly combative attitude toward extending ALL the Bush tax cuts, including those for the rich. But how can the president countenance them (including a loss of at least $1 trillion to the Treasury) if his own commission on debt reduction -- as its leaders today suggested -- want substantial reductions in Social Security and other programs central to the very identity of the federal government?
And how can the president consider extending the already drawn-out timetable in Afghanistan if we don't really have the wherewithal or the rationale to stay?
It's time for choices, and he had better decide before he gets back home.