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Is Obama's Bold Budget Too Ambitious?


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

President Obama released an outline of his budget for 2010 yesterday with these words:

President BARACK OBAMA: This budget is an honest accounting of where we are and where we intend to go.

INSKEEP: Okay. By his numbers, here's where we are. The president reports a budget deficit in the fiscal year we're in the middle of right now of $1.75 trillion. Within four years, the president projects a deficit that will come down to a little over $500 billion - a dramatic decrease that would still be a record high deficit for any other point in history.

The president wants to give tax cuts to the middle class, while the government seeks to cut greenhouse gases, develop alternative energy, reign in health care spending, and boost education. NPR's John Ydstie reports on whether it's all plausible.

JOHN YDSTIE: One of the first things reporters look for when a president unveils a budget is whether it involves a rosy economic scenario, one that overestimates growth and tax revenues and underestimates the size of the federal budget deficit. Indeed, the Obama White House is basing its budget on estimates somewhat more optimistic than a number of surveys of professional economists.

But Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, believes the administration's forecasts are as valid as any.

Ms. MAYA MACGUINEAS (President, Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget): You could tell me that this recession is going to last for two more years, you could tell me that we're going to have a strong recovery, or most likely it's going to be something in between. And I really don't think any economist knows where we're headed.

YDSTIE: But honesty in budgeting is not just about economic forecasts, something President Obama pointed out as he unveiled his budget yesterday.

Pres. OBAMA: For too long our budget has not told the whole truth about how precious tax dollars are spent. Large sums have been left off the books, including the true costs of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

YDSTIE: But this budget is different, says Maya MacGuineas, who's also with the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank. She says it's the most transparent budget in a long time.

Ms. MACGUINEAS: It really includes all the items that this administration thinks are likely to consume resources in the coming years, and particularly the Alternative Minimum Tax, realistic funding for the war, some ways that we treat supposed savings in Medicare that never happened to materialize, have all be put in this budget in an honest way for the first time in years.

YDSTIE: But MacGuineas expresses one major disappointment. She says President Obama isn't cutting the deficit enough.

Ms. MACGUINEAS: Given the state of our budget deficits that are just well beyond what anybody could've imagined, we should be talking about how to do deficit reduction first, and then second, how to pay new tax and spending items. There's just not a lot of wiggle room in the budget right now.

Mr. DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN (Former Chief Economic Adviser to John McCain): I am disappointed but not surprised.

YDSTIE: That's Douglas Holtz-Eakin, chief economic adviser to John McCain's presidential campaign. He says President Obama made clear during the campaign that he would spend a lot of money.

Mr. HOLTZ-EAKIN: And made a lot of promises as the campaign evolved. It included trillions of dollars in new programs - we're seeing some of that now. He also talked about fiscal responsibility, and that's the part I find disappointing. Which is - I don't think they've taken the various pieces and put them together in a way that sets us up well at the end of his first term for the real big bills that we see coming in the future.

YDSTIE: Bills from entitlements, like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Holtz-Eakin, a former head of the Congressional Budget Office, says running future deficits of the size implied in this budget could make investors, including sovereign investors like China, nervous about the U.S.'s ability to pay its debts. And that could force U.S. borrowing costs up.

There is one more positive thing Maya MacGuineas sees in this budget. The new administration seems ready to pay for its initiatives through tax increases or cutting other programs, she says.

Ms. MACGUINEAS: They have some significant tax cuts and a significant expansion in health care spending, both of which the White House is saying must be fully paid for. And I think that it's imperative that that's the case and I certainly hope the White House sticks to that, even when they get pushed back from Congress, which they will.

YDSTIE: Douglas Holtz-Eakin agrees.

Mr. HOLTZ-EAKIN: The real trick is going to be getting the Congress to go along. An administration can talk about it, an administration can propose it, the real issue is will a Congress chain itself to a pay-as-you-go system. And even this Congress, run by Democrats, has passed on occasion.

YDSTIE: The budget is now in Congress's hands, though the administration will send out more details fleshing out its proposals in April.

John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Ydstie has covered the economy, Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve at NPR for nearly three decades. Over the years, NPR has also employed Ydstie's reporting skills to cover major stories like the aftermath of Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. He was a lead reporter in NPR's coverage of the global financial crisis and the Great Recession, as well as the network's coverage of President Trump's economic policies. Ydstie has also been a guest host on the NPR news programs Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. Ydstie stepped back from full-time reporting in late 2018, but plans to continue to contribute to NPR through part-time assignments and work on special projects.