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Obama argues a balanced budget isn't necessary. Can he convince the public?

Republicans propose to balance the budget within 10 years, while Democrats argue that such a move could actually hurt the economy. History suggests the politics may be on Republicans' side.

By Correspondent / March 13, 2013

President Barack Obama, escorted by House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving (r.) arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 13, for closed-door talks with House Speaker John Boehner and the House Republican Conference to discuss the budget.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Are Republicans wrong to make balancing the federal budget a priority? That's essentially what President Obama said Tuesday in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos.

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Correspondent

Liz Marlantes covers politics for the Monitor and is a regular contributor to the Monitor's political blog, DC Decoder.

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"My goal is not to chase a balanced budget just for the sake of balance," Mr. Obama said. "My goal is, how do we grow the economy, put people back to work." 

He added: "We're not going to balance the budget in 10 years, because if you look at what Paul Ryan does to balance the budget, it means that you have to voucherize Medicare, you have to slash deeply into programs like Medicaid, you've essentially got to either tax middle-class families a lot higher than you currently are, or you can't lower rates the way he's promised."

Obama's comments mirror what left-leaning economists like Paul Krugman have been arguing for a while: that while Washington will need to tackle its debt problem at some point down the line, doing so right now is not only unnecessary but could actually damage the economy. With the private sector still weak, the argument goes, reducing government spending could cause a contraction that could potentially send the economy back into recession.

Nevertheless, Democratic politicians have until recently been somewhat wary of dismissing a balanced budget out of hand – because polls show the public strongly approves of the idea, at least in the abstract (when presented with actual choices for cuts to reach a balanced budget, not surprisingly, the picture changes).

But now, Democrats are being forced to try to argue the other side of the argument – since the budget proposal from Representative Ryan (R) of Wisconsin achieves balance in 10 years, while the Democratic version put out Wednesday by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington does not. Obama is expected to release a proposal of his own next month, and given the president's comments, it seems unlikely that he will be offering a path to a balanced budget, either.

Republicans clearly think the politics favor their position. In a news conference Tuesday, Ryan essentially dared Obama to balance the budget, saying: "This is an invitation. Show us how to balance the budget. If you don't like the way we are proposing to balance our budget, how do you propose to balance the budget?" Or as Republican strategist John Feehery put it this week in The Hill: "House Republicans have seen the polling data and they know that balancing the budget in 10 years is by far their best political message."

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