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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.

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The White House is also betting that a strong recovery will take the sting out of any recommendations to slow the growth of Medicare spending emanating from the Medicare board set up under the new health care law (officially known as the Independent Payment Advisory Board.) Under Obama’s new plan, such proposals will be necessary if Medicare spending grows .5 percent faster than growth of the economy (under the law, it’s 1 percent faster).

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All told, it’s a clever strategy. It might well avoid a dangerous game of chicken over raising the debt ceiling. It still allows the President to charge Paul Ryan and other Republicans who join him as ending Medicare as we know it – which they are, in fact, proposing to do. (This may help Democrats win back seniors, whose support for Democratic house candidates dropped form 49% in 2006 to 38% in 2010.) And it gives the President lots of room to maneuver between now and Election Day, and between Election Day and 2014.

But there’s one big weakness. The whole thing depends on the recovery picking up steam. If the economy doesn’t, the process could backfire – leading to indiscriminate budget cuts later on, as well as big cuts in Medicare. Indeed, if the recovery fails to fire up, Obama’s own chance of reelection is dimmed considerably, as are the odds of a Democratic House after 2012.

Yet what are the chances of a booming recovery? The economy is now growing at an annualized rate of only 1.5 percent. That’s pitiful. It’s not nearly enough to bring down the rate of unemployment, or remove the danger of a double dip. Real wages continue to drop. Housing prices continue to drop. Food and gas prices are rising. Consumer confidence is still in the basement.

By focusing the public’s attention on the budget deficit, the President is still playing on the Republican’s field. By advancing his own “twelve year plan” for reducing it – without talking about the economy’s underlying problem – he appears to validate their big lie that reducing the deficit is the key to future prosperity.

The underlying problem isn’t the budget deficit. It’s that so much income and wealth are going to the top that most Americans don’t have the purchasing power to sustain a strong recovery.

Until steps are taken to alter this fundamental imbalance – for example, exempting the first $20K of income from payroll taxes while lifting the cap on income subject to payroll taxes, raising income and capital gains taxes on millionaires and using the revenues to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit up to incomes of $50,000, strengthening labor unions, and so on – a strong recovery may not be possible.

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