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Robert Reich

President Obama's real proposal (and why it's risky)

Obama said that his budget proposal would cut $4 trillion over the next 12 years. It's difficult to plan for a budget one or two years away, and it's downright unreasonable to plan one for 12 years from now.

By Guest blogger / April 15, 2011

President Barack Obama speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Thursday, April 14, 2011, while meeting the the co-chairmen of his deficit reduction commission. Obama made a proposal for a 12-year budget, but is it even possible to plan that far in advance?

Carolyn Kaster / AP

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Paul Ryan says his budget plan will cut $4.4 trillion over ten years. The President says his new plan will cut $4 trillion over twelve years.

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Let’s get real. Ten or twelve-year budgets are baloney. It’s hard enough to forecast budgets a year or two into the future. Between now and 2022 or 2024 the economy will probably have gone through a recovery (I’ll explain later why I fear it will be anemic at best) and another downturn. America will also have been through a bunch of elections – at least five congressional and three presidential.

The practical question is how to get out of the ongoing gravitational pull of this awful recession without cow-towing to extremists on the right who think the U.S. government is their mortal enemy. For President Obama, it’s also about how to get reelected.

(Yes, we also have to send a clear signal to global lenders that America is serious about reducing its long-term budget deficit. But in truth, global lenders don’t need much reassurance. Bond market yields in the U.S. are now lower than they were when the government was running a budget surplus ten years ago.)

Seen in this light, Obama’s plan isn’t really a budget proposal. It’s a process proposal.

Stage 1, starting now and ending in June, requires that Republican and Democratic leaders devise a budget for 2012. Apparently they’ve already agreed to try.

That budget would also include a “framework” for deficit reduction over the longer haul. But that framework will be mainly for show. It will give House Republicans enough cover to vote to raise the ceiling on the amount the U.S. government can borrow. (The vote has to occur before the Treasury runs out of accounting maneuvers, in early July.)

And because the framework’s details will be filled in after Election Day, it will give Obama wiggle room before the election to campaign on his priorities. If he wins big – and if Democrats retake the House – its details will look completely different from what they’d look like in the alternative.

Stage 2 occurs in 2014 – fully two years after Election Day. Then, according to Obama’s proposal, if the ratio of the nation’s deficit to the GDP hasn’t fallen to 2.5 percent (it’s now over 10 percent), automatic across-the-board cuts will go into effect to get it there.

Importantly, these cuts wouldn’t apply to Social Security and Medicare, or to Medicaid and other programs designed for the poor. And they wouldn’t be limited to spending. They’d also apply to tax expenditures – that is, to tax deductions and tax credits.

The betting in the White House is that by 2014 the recovery will be in full force, and the economy will have grown so much that the ratio of deficit to the GDP will be in the range of 3 to 5 percent anyway. That means any across-the-board cuts wouldn’t have to be very deep.