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The Budget as a Moral Exercise

So just how strongly will President Obama tout the recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson Commission when he speaks about deficit reduction on Wednesday? I am still not sure. Following a Washington Post report that the president planned to tout the commission’s recommendations, White House officials made clear to reporters that the president would not make the commission a central part of the speech. That’s encouraging, but I still think Obama would be smart to cite some of the other deficit reduction proposals circulating in Washington.

In addition to the “Our Fiscal Future” and Bipartisan Policy Center plans I wrote about previously, there’s the proposal House Democratic leaders plan to unveil on Wednesday morning, in advance of the president’s speech. Details on the plan aren’t available yet, but a House aide says that the proposal is supposed to achieve primary balance (that is, eliminating deficits except for interest payments) by 2018 and that it generates more savings than the president’s budget. That proposal won’t have bipartisan credibility, obviously, and I imagine it will call for more tax increases than Obama is willing to embrace. But he needn’t put his imprimatur on the plan. He need only signal (particularly to elites) that elements of that plan, or some of its similarly liberal alternatives, have a place in the discussion. 

In fact, the speech I’m hoping to hear on Wednesday is one that makes clear Obama’s willingness to negotiate in good faith about deficit reduction, but sets out basic principles (maybe like these) and then draws just a few clear lines. A place to start would be with a suggestion from political scientist Jonathan Bernstein: Obama should insist that any deficit reduction proposal have real, honest figures to back it up. Another criteria should be the preservation of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Radically transforming the programs should be out of bounds.

Both criteria would exclude from consideration the proposal from House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan. But I, for one, have no problem with that. The plan's extremism was apparent from day one, as it seeks to end Medicare and Medicaid as we know it, deny health insurance to more than 30 million people, and offer huge tax cuts to the wealthy. More recently, though, scrutiny has shown it to be something of a fake. It has fishy economic projections from the Heritage Foundation. It actually doesn’t produce tremendous savings in the first ten years, because tax cuts eat up almost all of the spending reductions once you properly account for declining war spending. The long-term savings are larger, but they depend on dubious political assumptions (namely, the ability to enact draconian Medicare cuts that would fall almost entirely on beneficiaries).

Speaking from the podium on Tuesday, Press Secretary Jay Carney offered just such a clear rejection of Ryan:

...balance is essential; that the burden has to be shared by everyone. And what is not acceptable, in the President’s view -- and, we believe, in the American people’s view -- is a plan that achieves serious deficit reduction only by asking for sacrifice from the middle class, seniors, the disabled, and the poor, while providing substantial tax cuts to the very well off.

Statements like that are important not only for what they say about policy. They are important for what they say about morality. As Greg Sargent has noted, framing the budget debate as a test of our society's priorities was a key element in Bill Clinton’s political strategy in 1995. "Democrats are at their best not simply when they say, `Republicans are mean--they want to cut Medicare,’” Clinton adviser Paul Begala told Sargent, arguing that the correct message is: “They want to cut Medicare because they want to give tax cuts to the rich. That’s what’s indefensible.”

I don't expect we'll hear anything that strident from Obama on Wednesday. It's not his style. But a speech that made a principled, moral case for shared sacrifice would more than suffice--even if it includes mention of Bowles-Simpson.