Obama explains his economic balancing act

It's not easy to accelerate job growth while putting the brakes on deficit spending. The President makes his case


Andrew Leonard
December 5, 2009 4:05AM (UTC)

Brad DeLong and FireDogLake are both highlighting an exchange between Robert Kuttner and President Obama yesterday that is worth echoing far and wide... but only if you are interested in a thoughtful and nuanced look at the economic policy challenges faced by the United States right now.

ROBERT KUTTNER: You know, most of the things that have been proposed today cost money, and there is this concern about the federal deficit. I hope that your administration will recognize, as I know you will, that it's possible, first of all, to reduce the deficit over time and sometimes in the short run realize that you need to increase the deficit. And I hope the concern about the deficit in the long run doesn't crowd out the need for additional spending in the short run. And I also think that some of these programs that increase jobs and increase GDP are probably the fastest way to get the economy back on a track that will reduce the deficit over time. It's certainly a better way to reduce the deficit than putting ourselves into a -- into a debtor's prison and assume we can deflate our way to recovery.

BARACK OBAMA: Well, I think this is an important point. You know, we've been talking a lot about specific initiatives. There is a macroeconomic element to this whole thing. And so let me just amplify what was just said.

We have a structural deficit that is real and growing, apart from the financial crisis. We inherited it. We're spending about 23 percent of GDP and we take in 18 percent of GDP and that gap is growing because health care costs, Medicare and Medicaid in particular, are growing. And we've got to do something about that.

You then layer on top of that the huge loss of tax revenue as a consequence of the financial crisis and the greater demands for unemployment insurance and so forth. That's another layer. Probably the smallest layer is actually what we did in terms of the Recovery Act. I mean, I think there's a misperception out there that somehow the Recovery Act caused these deficits.

No, I mean, we had -- we've got a 9-point-something trillion-dollar deficit, maybe a trillion dollars of it can be attributed to both the Recovery Act as well as the cleanup work that we had to do in terms of the banks. In turns out actually TARP, as wildly unpopular as it has been, has been much cheaper than any of us anticipated.

So that's not what's contributing to the deficit. We've got a long-term structural deficit that is primarily being driven by health care costs, and our long-term entitlement programs. All right? So that's the baseline.

Now, if we can't grow our economy, then it is going to be that much harder for us to reduce the deficit. The single most important thing we could do right now for deficit reduction is to spark strong economic growth, which means that people who've got jobs are paying taxes and businesses that are making profits have taxes -- are paying taxes. That's the most important thing we can do.

We understand that in this administration. That's not always the dialogue that's going on out there in public and we're going to have to do a better job of educating the public on that.

The last thing we would want to do in the midst of what is a weak recovery is us to essentially take more money out of the system either by raising taxes or by drastically slashing spending. And frankly, because state and local governments generally don't have the capacity to engage in deficit spending, some of that obligation falls on the federal government.

Having said that, what is also true is that unless businesses and global capital markets have some sense that we've got a plan, medium and long term, to get the deficit down, it's hard for us to be credible, and that also could be counterproductive. So we've got about as difficult a economic play as is possible, which is to press the accelerator in terms of job growth, but then know when to apply the brakes in the out-years and do that credibly. And you know, we are trying to strike that balance, but we're going to need help from all of you who oftentimes are more credible than politicians in delivering that message.

Because we want to leverage whatever public dollars are spent, and we are under no illusion that somehow the federal government can spend its way out of this recession. But it is absolutely true that any of the ideas that have been -- been mentioned here are still going to require some public dollars, and those are actually good investments to make right now.

Like many Salon readers, I feel a great deal of anxiety about where the U.S. is headed, and there have been many disappointments in this first year of the Obama presidency. But I really can't think of anything I'd rather have confronting our challenges than the guy who spoke the words above yesterday.

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Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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