NO BUDGET CAN be judged in isolation. The baseline question is: compared to what?
Republicans will make much of President Obama’s failure to fulfill his promise to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term. Given the shaky recovery, he’s right to break that promise. The short-term goal must be economic growth, not deficit-trimming. Taming the ever-growing pile of debt is a longer-term challenge.
On that goal, measured against his own fiscal commission, Mr. Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2013 falls short. At the end of the 10-year budget window, he would have the national debt at a disturbing 76.5 percent of gross domestic product. By comparison, the debt reduction plan envisioned by the Simpson-Bowles commission would reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio close to a more manageable, if still unhealthy, 60 percent.
To reduce debt, the first order of business must be Medicare. As he recommended with his debt reduction package last fall, Mr. Obama would introduce useful changes such as a premium surcharge for new Medicare beneficiaries who purchase first-dollar Medigap coverage. Still, most of the envisioned cuts fall on Medicare providers and do not go far enough to restructure the system. On Social Security, once again Mr. Obama fails to propose a strategy for putting the program on a sustainable path.
As he has repeatedly proposed, Mr. Obama would raise an additional $1.6 trillion in revenue by allowing the Bush tax cuts for the upper two brackets to expire and by limiting the value of deductions for wealthier taxpayers, increases envisioned by Simpson-Bowles. But the president did not sketch out a vision of the fundamental tax reform that, as the Simpson-Bowles report explained, would be a better way of raising revenue than fiddling with top tax brackets. The final budget of his first term does not reflect the leadership on issues of debt and deficit that Mr. Obama once vowed.
Measured against other standards, Mr. Obama’s plan looks better. Republicans in Congress propose to take a machete to spending. Republicans running for president propose the machete coupled with trillions in additional tax cuts. They offer no realistic prospect of getting the debt under control, and the proof of that is their unwillingness to specify where and how they would slash spending, as their tax plans would require them to do.
The president at least offers a serious, if inadequate, effort to put the country on a sustainable path. His budget recognizes, as Republicans will not, that spending cuts and revenue increases will be needed. It does not slash the social safety net nor eviscerate the spending, for example on research and infrastructure, essential to sustaining a vibrant economy. At the same time, the Obama budget recognizes that the recovering economy still needs help — not the contractionary fiscal shock that would come from letting all the Bush tax cuts expire.
By one additional standard — governing reality — neither side is offering much. A disaster awaits at the end of this year, when mandated “sequesters” of federal spending will kick in because of Congress’s failure to craft a long-term debt plan. These include cuts to the defense budget that Mr. Obama’s defense secretary has warned are insupportable. Adopting the Obama budget would forestall these. But all of Washington knows that’s not going to happen in this election year. Unfortunately, we likely will have to wait until December for the real debate.