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What President Obama Will -- and Won't -- Say in His Speech Tomorrow

President Obama has already telegraphed much of what he will say tomorrow about the nation's fiscal challenges. Likely to be on the agenda: Cuts in spending on Medicare, Medicaid and other government entitlements; tax hikes for the wealthiest Americans; an ode to bipartisanship.

In other words, everything a sitting President needs to get re-elected, since all three would appeal to the sort of swing voters both political parties are vying for. Pledging to rein in health care spending allows the White House to underline its seriousness about balancing the federal budget. Meanwhile, polls show that rolling back tax cuts (passed under George W. Bush) for individuals making at least $200,000 remains by far the public's preferred approach to getting our books in order.

Unearthing Simpson-Bowles
The obligatory nod to bipartisanship here may come in the form of Obama's support for the deficit-reduction plan proposed last fall by former senator Alan Simpson and former Clinton White House staffer Erskine Bowles. Why Simpson-Bowles? Because it's not a wholesale, and altogether nutty, castration of popular government programs, as Rep. Paul Ryan has pitched. And because Obama can frame the plan as a suitable political compromise. Writes the WaPo's Ezra Klein:

Simpson-Bowles was an effort to attract votes from both parties. The reason it can be bipartisan is that, unlike the House GOP's proposal, it doesn't use deficit reduction as cover to sneak in ideological changes to the state: there's no effort at privatizing Medicare or block granting Medicaid, no decision to go after programs for the poor while exempting both revenues and defense cuts. The plan's theory is that cutting the deficit is hard enough without also engaging a couple of long-running ideological wars about the shape and responsibilities of the America state. So it dodges those wars, and in endorsing it, Obama will too.
If so, that's too bad. Simpson-Bowles proposes to shrink the U.S. deficit by $3.8 trillion by 2020 mostly by cutting government spending, especially for health care. It does relatively little to boost federal tax revenues. That's a recipe for future budget woes as the the population ages and health care costs escalate. Sharp decreases in federal spending also could put the brakes on the fragile U.S. economic recovery.

Wanted: Straight talk on the Ryan plan
What we're unlikely to hear from Obama on Wednesday is a forceful repudiation of Ryan's budget blueprint. That, too, would be regrettable. It's becoming clearer by the day just how hard the "Path to Prosperity" would hit average Americans.

Under the Ryan plan, for instance, most middle-income retirees would have to shell out nearly half their income to purchase the equivalent of Medicare coverage by 2030, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington think tank. Savings in federal health care expenditures would be funneled largely into tax cuts for the top 10 percent of income-earners and for business.

If that doesn't call for a clear, direct rebuttal from the President, I don't know what does. Bipartisanship shouldn't amount to splitting the difference between spending cuts targeting the poor and middle class and tax giveaways to the rich.

Paul Ryan image from Flickr user Gage Skidmore

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