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Obama vs. Ryan: Who's Winning the Deficit Debate? | The Nation

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Obama vs. Ryan: Who's Winning the Deficit Debate?

Democratic strategists believe that House Republicans committed political suicide by voting to approve Representative Paul Ryan’s budget plan last week. “When we win back the majority, people will look back at this vote as a defining one that secured the majority for Democrats,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel told Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent.

Obama skillfully framed Ryan’s budget during a major speech on the deficit earlier in the week, contrasting his vision of “shared sacrifice” with Ryan’s “deeply pessimistic” plan to gut the social safety net and redistribute income upwards. After a week of enjoying the limelight, the “bold” and “courageous” Mr. Ryan, an instant media darling, suddenly looked like something of a fool. Ryan complained that Obama had characterized his proposal as “basically it's un-American.”

Obama plans to talk up his deficit plan in a series of campaign stops this week in Virginia, Nevada and California, and a virtual town hall hosted by Facebook. Obama’s advisers believe the president is finally on advantageous terrain on this issue. Reported the Post: “Obama faces a political necessity—claiming the debt issue as his own—and a political opportunity. Recent polls show that Americans disapprove of his record on the deficit. But sizable majorities agree that a combination of spending cuts and tax hikes on the wealthy—Obama’s vision—is the best prescription for the nation’s fiscal malady.”

Yet Obama’s deficit hawk transformation carries risks for the president. By arguing that spending and debt are the biggest problems facing the country, his administration no longer makes the case that the government has a significant role to play in boosting the economy—even though many economists believe additional stimulus is still needed. “We do possess many tools for curing cyclical unemployment, both monetary and fiscal, and I feel it is shameful we are not using them more aggressively,” said Christina Romer, former chair of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Though his speech included a stirring defense of progressive governance, Obama’s plan is actually quite conservative in substance, largely modeled after his Simpson-Bowles deficit commission. Next month, Vice President Biden will convene a bipartisan debt summit with members of Congress to “begin work on a legislative framework for comprehensive deficit reduction,” according to the White House. Any deal the administration strikes with Congressional Republicans will likely incorporate major elements of Ryan’s plan, making it much harder for Obama and Democratic candidates to campaign against it in 2012. Moreover, the bipartisan “gang of six” Senators will soon release their own deficit plan, which Senator Dick Durbin says will fall somewhere between Obama and Ryan—i.e., squarely on the center-right, which is further evidence of how the debate on the deficit is playing out on the GOP’s turf.

The disconnect between deficit-crazed Washington and the concerns of the American public—high unemployment, rising gas prices—appears to be increasing. Poll after poll shows that the country favors job creation over deficit reduction, but neither party seems to be listening. A new Post poll reveals heightened anxiety on the economy—44 percent of Americans believe the economy is getting worse, not better, while 57 percent disapprove of President Obama’s handling of the issue. Despite the radicalism of Ryan’s plan, if the economy does not significantly improve by November 2012, Obama, rightly or wrongly, will likely get the blame.

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics

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