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Obama Misleads on Support for 'Balanced' Deficit Agreement

1:55 PM, Jul 15, 2011 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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At his press conference Friday, President Barack Obama repeatedly claimed that the American people support a “balanced approach” and “shared sacrifice” when it comes to a debt and deficit solution.

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Elizabeth Cromwell

“The American people are sold,” Obama said. “You have 80 percent of the American people who support a balanced approach. Eighty percent of the American people support an approach that includes revenues and includes cuts.”

The president didn’t cite a particular poll, but he was most likely referring to this Gallup poll, which found that only 20 percent of Americans believe in reducing the deficit “only with spending cuts.” The other 80 percent, the president seems to have concluded, are for a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. (Obama did not, conveniently, mention that polls have shown more Americans are against raising the debt ceiling than are for it.)

The truth, however, is a little more complicated. Thirty percent of those polled believe the solution to the budget deficit is “mostly with spending cuts,” meaning a full 50 percent (20 percent for “only” cuts, and 30 percent for “mostly” cuts) favor spending cuts as the primary deficit reduction tool. Thirty-two percent support an equal number of cuts and tax hikes, with seven percent for “mostly tax increases” and four percent for “only tax increases.”

The president’s “80 percent” figure is misleading in two ways. First, if you consider a very broad definition of “balance” to include those who mostly favor cuts (30 percent), those who favor an equal balance (32 percent), and those who mostly favor tax hikes (7 percent), that figure is more like 69 percent.

Second, Obama is certainly stretching the idea of balance if he includes those who want a larger emphasis on cuts. Those favoring an equally balanced approach are still less than one-third of the country—not insignificant support but certainly not as universal as Obama made it seem in his press conference. And, according to that Gallup poll, half of the country wants deficit reduction to focus primarily on spending cuts. And Rasmussen even found that 55 percent of Americans are against tax hikes altogether.

Gallup doesn’t get into the specifics on what Americans think Congress ought to cut. However, beginning with the introduction of Paul Ryan's budget earlier this year, public debate has largely focused on whether entitlement programs—which are an ever growing portion of federal expenditures—need to be trimmed, and in what way and to what extent.

Jake Tapper of ABC News asked Obama about specific structural reforms to entitlement programs that he might be willing to consider in a debt deal.

“Would you be willing to raise the retirement age?” Tapper asked. “Would you be willing to means test Social Security or Medicare?”

“We’ve said that we are willing to look at all those approaches,” Obama replied. “I’ve said that means testing on Medicare, meaning people like myself…You can envision a situation where, for somebody in my position, me having to pay a little bit more on premiums or co-pays or things like that, would be appropriate, and again, that could make a difference. So, we’ve been very clear about where we’re willing to go.”

Obama never actually said that means testing, for instance, is a policy that he'd be willing to adopt, but only that he’s “willing to look” at it. The president then turned his sights on Ryan’s reforms for Medicare.

“What we’re not willing to do is to restructure the program in the ways that we’ve seen coming out of the House over the last several months where we would voucherize the program and you potentially have seniors citizens paying $6,000 more,” Obama said.

“It is not necessary to completely revamp the program,” Obama added. In fact, the source of the government debt woes, according to the president, aren’t in entitlements like Medicare—it’s almost solely the fault of the Bush administration.

“It turns out that our problem is we cut taxes without paying for them over the last decade,” Obama explained. “We ended up instituting new programs, like a prescription drug program for seniors that was not paid for. We fought two wars, we didn’t pay for them. We had a bad recession that required a recovery act and stimulus spending and helping states and all that accumulated, and there’s interest on top of that.” The president did not mention that the tax rates of the last decade were voted on—and passed—by a Democratic House and Senate, and that Obama himself signed them into law last year.

While Obama insisted on “balance” in fixing the problem, it was clear which direction his scale is calibrated. “What’s required is that we roll back those tax cuts on the wealthiest individuals,” he said. “That we clean up our tax code so we’re not giving out a bunch of tax breaks to companies that don’t need them and that aren’t creating jobs, we cut programs that we don’t need, and we invest in those things that are going to help us grow.”

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