Burden of Proof

IN radio addresses, meetings with lawmakers, talks with business leaders, TV "town halls," and his speech to the nation on Feb. 15, President Clinton has tried to lay the groundwork for delivering his economic package in a speech to a joint session of Congress tonight.

But the true burden of proof falls on tonight's address: The president needs to build the logical connections between and among the specifics of his plan and show how they meet his overall goals of reducing the deficit and advancing economic growth.

In broad terms, the deep tax cuts and large defense-spending increases of the early 1980s stimulated the economy, but the gap between income and spending grew, as did the debt, with ever larger amounts of the budget needed to pay interest on the debt.

That, along with the growing expense of Medicare and Medicaid, drew down resources that could have been used for investment in areas that could help strengthen the economy over the long term.

Responsibility falls equally on the executive and legislative branches, and on voters, many of whom were understandably worried about the high inflation and unemployment rates coming out of the 1980 election, and backed a plan that President Reagan's former budget director, David Stockman, acknowledged as based on dubious assumptions.

Tonight, Clinton is expected to propose as fundamental a shift in fiscal policy relative to the last 12 years - a four-year, $500 billion package of tax increases and spending cuts - as Reagan did early in his first term.

In a New York Times/CBS Poll conducted between Feb. 9 and 11, 54 percent of the respondents agreed that tax increases "on people like you" would be necessary to make headway on the deficit, which is projected to hit $327 billion this fiscal year; 56 percent felt that the president's approach to tax increases would be fair "to people like you." These results suggest an initial base of support.

But cite specifics, such as an energy tax, and support begins to wither. In part, this is a result of the trial-balloon process. Hence the need to see the logic of the whole, on which the plan should rise or fall.

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