Saturday, February 26, 2011

In weekly address, Obama lays markers for long-term deficit reduction

As I've suggested before, I regard Obama's investment agenda and proposed budget as a carefully laid frame for negotiation of a plan to take care of the long-term structural deficit.  The investment agenda -- education, R&D, infrastructure -- is a marker laid down to prevent budget-cutting frenzy from hobbling his long-term goals; his 2012 budget, with its cuts in discretionary domestic spending, is a foil for the GOP's budgetary meat ax; and in the space between preserving long-term investments and a show of short-term discipline, he is laying out the parameters of a negotiation for a long-term budget/tax deal in which all "get in the boat together"

Obama's current weekly address brings that strategy into sharper focus. He begins with anecdotal illustrations of the good effects of investments in education, R&D and infrastructure; emphasizes the discipline in his proposed budget, which he says will bring discretionary domestic spending to "its lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was President"; blithely waves away the prospect of a government shutdown by expressing an expectation that both parties will compromise on a continuing resolution on his terms ("I urge and expect [both parties] to find common ground so we can accelerate, not impede, economic growth") -- and lays out an interesting set of priorities for long term budget/tax reform.  Here it is:
Still, a freeze in annual domestic spending is just a start. If we’re serious about tackling our long-run fiscal challenges, we also need to cut excessive spending wherever we find it – in defense spending, spending in Medicare and Medicaid, and spending through tax breaks and loopholes.
Three notes on that little laundry list: 1) it starts with defense spending.  He wants Republican cover for that, and there are enough murmurs in the GOP that defense can't be immune to ensure that merely announcing the goal will not lay him open to attack. 2) No nonsense about "entitlements," i.e. no mention of social security -- to control long-term spending he is focused, as he has been since early 2009, on health care spending.  Social security is a sideshow, and he's indicated elsewhere that he wants a separate negotiation on it. 3) He defines "tax breaks" as spending, suggesting a rhetorical path to getting Republican buy-in for raising tax revenue. That is, like the Bowles-Simpson commission and the authors of every other deficit reduction plan that's been floated, he views reducing "tax expenditures" -- targeted tax breaks -- as a primary  path to increasing the government's take, and he's using language that will provide Republicans cover for going along. There is good evidence that Senators Chambliss, Crapo and Coburn, the GOP contingent in the gang of six now in preliminary budget deal discussions, are alive to this rhetorical loophole for raising revenue -- and two of them (Coburn and Crapo) signed on to Bowles-Erskine, which did raise revenue by these means.

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