Which Obama Will Show Up to Deliver Today's Budget Speech?

There are wildly conflicting reports about what kind of speech President Obama will give when he addresses the nation on the budget fight today. Which Obama will show up this afternoon? Will it be the progressive who ran and won in 2008 by shining a bright light on the way excessive corporate power distorts our economic policies, promising an approach that, in his own words, “begins with one word that's on everyone's mind, and it's easy to spell: J-O-B-S"? Or will it be the president whose hearty embrace of Washington's deficit hysteria has made the Right's calls for drastic and painful budget cuts appear “bipartisan,” and therefore ultimately sensible?

According to the Washington Post, Obama will use his speech to essentially endorse the conclusions of the Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission, also known as the "Catfood Commission." That would be a call for cutting taxes on corporations and the wealthy and raising them on the middle class, trimming “entitlement” spending – raising the retirement age for Social Security in addition to unspecified future “reforms” to Medicare – slashing the federal workforce, cutting public workers' pensions, cutting subsidized student loans and eliminating a slew of tax deductions targeted at the middle class.

There were some crumbs thrown to progressives in the commission's recommendations – they would close certain corporate tax loopholes, reduce the number of military bases around the world and cut defense procurements by 15 percent. But the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities lamented the proposal's lack of “appropriate balance” between spending cuts and revenue increases, while the Economic Policy Institute said it would cost the economy “millions of jobs” and economist Paul Krugman dismissed the recommendations as “unserious.”

According to the Washington Post, “Obama will frame the approach as a responsible alternative to the 2012 plan unveiled last week by House Republicans.” The idea, according to administration insiders, is to signal to swing voters that Obama is “serious” about long-term deficit reduction while drawing a contrast to Rep. Paul Ryan's far-right and decidedly non-bipartisan budget. The Post portrays it as a debate fraught with peril for both sides.

Pushing the results of the Simpson-Bowles recommendations would be very bad policy joined with at best highly questionable politics.

But perhaps this scenario won't come to pass. The Los Angeles Times, as if reporting from a parallel universe, expects Obama to “call for shrinking the nation's long-term deficits by raising taxes on wealthier Americans and requiring them to pay more into Social Security, drawing a barbed contrast with a Republican plan to save money by deeply slashing Medicare, Medicaid and other domestic spending.”

Obama would end tax breaks for households earning more than $250,000 a year, trim Pentagon spending, lift a cap on the amount of income that is assessed for Social Security, and save on Medicare and Medicaid through alterations to healthcare delivery, administration officials said.

The report suggests that the successful 2005 fight against Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security might be a model for the coming debates. That amounted to forcefully arguing that the whole thing was simply a giveaway to Wall Street and drawing a line in the sand – a decidedly different approach than that taken by Obama.

Yesterday, Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein made expectations even more confusing by reporting that sources in the White House told him the speech will not be an endorsement of Simpson-Bowles and that this will all "make more sense tomorrow." And according to Klein's colleague Greg Sargent, a White House spokesperson had “hinted that all the reporting out there today is wrong, and insisted Obama’s vision would not be based solely on any particular plan.”

On its face, these kinds of contradictory reports are a sign of internal strife in the White House. Among a president's advisers, two camps form, and each leaks their preferred narrative to friendly reporters in the hope of creating a narrative the president will embrace.

But it's also the case that the needle Obama is trying to thread creates confusion. He's accepted the dangerous idea that spending should be cut right in the middle of a shaky, jobless “recovery,” and, in an attempt to hold onto his progressive base while reaching out to independents, he's suggesting his opponents' remedies are radical and that he'd essentially be a more responsible Republican than the Republicans. Small wonder that political reporters are left guessing which way he'll go.

Which President Obama will show up at that lectern today? That remains to be seen. But we can be sure that Obama won't argue, forcefully, that we have deficit caused by runaway health-care costs, decades of tax cuts unmatched by reductions in spending and an unsustainably high military budget – that the whole issue is being demagogued as a premise for cutting Social Security, Medicare and other very popular programs.


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