Great Speech, But The Devil's In The Details. Why Deep Budget Cuts When Economy Is At Its Weakest?

Obama's speech was uplifting, so far as the rhetoric goes. He really drew a line in the sand between Democrats and Republicans in his talk at GWU. Here's what Greg Sargent wrote: There’s no ignoring the fact that such stirring rhetoric jars

Obama's speech was uplifting, so far as the rhetoric goes. He really drew a line in the sand between Democrats and Republicans in his talk at GWU. Here's what Greg Sargent wrote:

There’s no ignoring the fact that such stirring rhetoric jars against Obama’s recent deal with Republicans to continue the tax cuts for the rich, and some will be understandably wary of his stated moral conviction about them. But the President did draw a sharp line — one that will be hard to climb down from — on the coming fight over whether to let them expire: “I refuse to renew them again.”

On entitlements, it’s true that Obama repeated the formulation — disliked on the left — that we will reform entitlements without “slashing” benefits for future generations, which leaves the door open to mere “cuts.” But Obama did draw a hard line on defending Medicare’s core mission, and crucially, he did so while reiterating the speech’s larger message, which was that the Democratic version of the social contract is inviolable.

“I will preserve these health care programs as a promise we make to each other in this society,” he said. “We will reform these programs, but we will not abandon the fundamental commitment this country has kept for generations.”

We cannot know right now whether the steadfastness of Obama’s rhetoric in defending core liberal and Democratic ideals will be matched by equal resoluteness in practice when the battles heat up and the temptation to make deals and jettison core priorities intensifies. But Obama did tell us in clear and unequivocal moral terms what he thinks it means to be a Democrat, and those who have been waiting for him to do so should be quite satisfied by what they heard.

A less optimistic take from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

Because the Obama plan relies on budget cuts for two-thirds of its deficit reduction measures, it goes dangerously far in two areas. It calls for $360 billion in cuts in mandatory programs other than Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. The large budget-cut target for this part of the budget risks leading to substantial cuts in core programs for low-income Americans, our most vulnerable people.

To the President’s credit, his plan states that “reforms to mandatory programs should protect and strengthen the safety net for low-income families and other vulnerable Americans.” And the Bowles-Simpson plan enunciates the same basic principle. But to achieve $360 billion in savings in this part of the budget without cutting programs for low-income families and thereby increasing poverty and hardship will require very tough choices that entail confronting powerful special-interest lobbyists to a degree that neither party has proved capable of doing in the past.

Another significant concern stems from the President’s proposal to limit the annual growth in Medicare costs per beneficiary to the per capita rate of growth in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) plus only 0.5 percentage points and to require automatic cuts in Medicare if this target would otherwise be exceeded. This goal is laudable. But it may be unrealistic. Historically, Medicare costs per beneficiary have risen about 2 percentage points per year faster than GDP growth per capita. The health reform law will launch a series of demonstrations, pilots, and research projects to find effective ways to slow health care cost growth without reducing the quality of care or access to care. But we don’t know yet how much or how quickly we can lower health care cost growth, especially since the principal driver in cost growth is medical advances that improve health and save and prolong lives but add significant costs.

Finally, the President’s plan calls for a mechanism to trigger automatic reductions in programs and tax expenditures if the debt would exceed certain benchmarks (measured as a share of GDP). The goal of stabilizing the debt as a share of GDP is precisely the right one. But all triggers like this that have been designed in the past have suffered from a fatal flaw — they required the deepest budget cuts when the economy was weakest and the smallest cuts when it was strongest — the opposite of what sound economic policy entails. The President’s plan calls for the trigger to “include a mechanism to ensure that it does not exacerbate an economic downturn.” No one has succeeded until now in producing a mechanism that meets this test, and it remains unclear whether it can be done. This new proposal bears some similarities to the trigger in the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law, which was not successful and which Congress ultimately repealed.

To be sure, the President’s plan represents an important step forward in the debate. But it should be recognized that this plan is a rather conservative one, significantly to the right of the Rivlin-Domenici plan. While we worry about some particular elements of the President’s plan, we worry much more that the deficit-reduction process that’s now starting could produce an outcome that is well to the right of the already centrist-to-moderately-conservative Obama proposal, by reducing its modest revenue increases and cutting more deeply into effective programs that are vital to millions of Americans.

UPDATE: I agree with Joshua Holland's take.

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