He might have empowered Republicans in Congress — the Roy Blunts and Bob Corkers — who want to work with Democrats and get things done.
The effect on the Democratic Party would have been even more liberating. Instead of chaining themselves to 20th-century arguments and interest groups, Democrats could have begun to shape — and realistically promise to pay for — a 21st-century progressive program focusing on early education and other avenues to opportunity. They could have resources for family policies that really would help address the wage gap.
Instead of a partisan president on the defensive with slipping poll numbers, Obama could have been, as he had once promised, the president of both red and blue America.
Some (including Obama) argue that his refusal to embrace the commission he had appointed reflected simple political realism. One version of this argument is that his endorsement would have been poisonous, given GOP animosity toward him; by staying aloof he enhanced the chances of a fiscal deal. We know how that panned out.
Another version is that it would have been hopeless; he had no serious Republican partner and so no chance of muscling reform through Congress. We’ll never know whether that is true; we can be fairly sure, in this season of LBJ nostalgia, that other presidents would have given it more of a try.
Others would argue that Obama was right to steer clear of the “austerity” of Simpson-Bowles. But the commission was never about austerity; it recommended and won Republican support for a higher level of government spending than Democratic or Republican budgeteers have proposed since.
What it was, rather, was an acknowledgment that in an aging society, some government spending that has been put on autopilot has to be reexamined so that other priorities — national defense, national parks, colleges, railroads, Head Start — can get their due, and that they all have to be paid for. These were the hard choices that Obama promised, as a candidate in 2008, to face.