The early coverage of President Obama's budget has focused almost entirely on "chained-CPI": The inflation index that would cut Social Security and raise taxes by a couple hundred billion dollars over the next decade.
But that's missing the forest for one very scraggly tree. Budgets are a rare opportunity to cut through the two parties' rhetoric and see the numbers behind their visions for the country. In this case, the difference between Obama and the House Republicans' visions for the country is about $4.6 trillion over the next decade.
Here's where that $4.6 trillion comes from -- and where it goes.
The House GOP budget sees tax revenues totaling 18.8 percent of GDP over the next decade, while Obama's budget puts them at 19.1 percent. The difference over 10 years, using the GOP's numbers? Three-tenths of a percentage point of GDP, or about $640 billion.
House Republicans see an average deficit of 0.6 percent over the next decade, while Obama's looking at 2.5 percent. The difference there is 1.9 percent of GDP, or more than $4 trillion.
Put the two together and House Republicans are putting about $4.6 trillion more toward lower deficits or lower taxes than the White House. If you want to know why the House GOP's budget looks so different from the White House, that $4.6 trillion is the answer. That $4.6 trillion is why House Republicans need to make such deep cuts to social programs. That $4.6 trillion is why the Obama administration can keep Obamacare as well as fund a new pre-kindergarten initiative.
That $4.6 trillion represents a stark choice. If used as Obama hopes, it means tens of millions more Americans with health insurance, a more generous food stamp program, more college aid, and more investments in biomedical research, among others. If used as the Republicans hope, it means less debt and lower taxes on the wealthy.
Both budgets bring the deficit down to more-than-manageable levels. Republicans, of course, are looking to eliminate the deficit entirely. But the White House brings the deficit down to 1.7 percent of GDP. Achieving that goal would mean America's debt load would be falling as a percentage of GDP, which is the measure most economists look to to see if our finances are stable.
The Republican budget argues that its cuts aren't so much a choice as a necessity. "Unless we change course," reads the introduction, "we will have a debt crisis." But that's incomplete. The truth of the Republican budget is that it's only necessary if you refuse to raise taxes and if you insist on balancing the budget within 10 years.
Obama's budget is meant to expose those premises: It's a demonstration of how more modest spending cuts, when added to new revenues, can stabilize the debt while leaving room for new investments. In other words, the federal government can do most of the things it's doing now, and more. Deep cuts aren't a necessity so much as a choice.
"Don't tell me what you value," Vice President Biden likes to say. "Show me your budget and I'll tell you what you value." In these two budgets, the White House and the House Republicans have been extremely clear as to what they value: $4.6 trillion of social support and investment for the White House, against $4.6 trillion of further deficit reduction and lower taxes for the Republicans.
(Quick methodological note: To get the dollar value of the differences between the two budgets, I'm using the GDP assumptions of the House Republican budget, which are based on Congressional Budget Office numbers. Using the White House's numbers would produce slightly different totals, but not change the underlying story.)