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Opinion

scot lehigh

Obama takes his case to the voters

President Obama unveiled his fiscal year 2013 budget at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Va., on Monday.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama unveiled his fiscal year 2013 budget at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Va., on Monday.

It's an odd experience to nod one’s head in agreement with Mitch McConnell. And yet, the Senate Minority Leader was certainly correct this week when he declared that President Obama’s new budget is a campaign document.

Speaking on the Senate floor, the minority leader lamented that Obama had decided to spotlight his priorities on the campaign trail rather than "reach out to Congress to craft a consensus budget."

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So regretful did McConnell seem that a naif might well have deemed him sincere. If, that is, the naif didn’t know this was the same Mitch McConnell who has turned filibustering into an art form. The same one who has declared his top priority is to defeat Obama. The same one who, in the 2010 lame-duck session, vowed to block any action on the administration’s priorities unless the Bush tax cuts for upper earners were extended.

All of which is to say that McConnell really isn’t interested in cooperating with Obama — at least, not until the president focuses enough public pressure on Senate Republicans to render obstructionism a political liability.

It’s no surprise, then, that Obama is taking his case to the voters. In this pivotal election, the Democratic incumbent and his eventual GOP opponent will be pitching dramatically different philosophies.

Obama will style himself as the doughty defender of an activist government, the determined champion of middle and moderate earners, and the successful architect of a temporary payroll tax cut.

Obama won’t be consumed with concern about the long-term deficit. Last year, in his negotiations with House Speaker Boehner, the president seemed poised to embrace real cuts in entitlements in exchange for Republican acquiescence on more tax revenue.

But now, other than some relatively minor savings in Medicare, Obama’s primary deficit-related focus is his call for higher taxes on upper earners. All told, his budget relies on about $1.4 trillion over 10 years in new revenue from that group. Much of that comes from letting the Bush tax cuts on family income above $250,000 expire and from limiting upper-income tax deductions. The president also wants the wealthy to pay higher taxes on long-term capital gains and dividends. And he’s pushing the principle that those with incomes of $1 million or more should pay at least 30 percent in taxes.

But Obama isn’t asking more of families making less than $250,000. His big election-year fiction is that the long-term deficit can be fixed without higher taxes on them.

"He is drawing an unrealistic line in the sand," says Bob Bixby, president of Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan deficit budgetary watchdog. "When you look at the magnitude of the deficit, we really need more revenue, and it is unrealistic to think that it can come just from the rich."

The Republican Party’s presidential candidates and congressional leaders, meanwhile, are busy peddling a big fiction of their own: It’s spending increases that are driving both the current and long-term deficits. In the short term, the still struggling economy, war expenses, and tax-cut revenue losses are all big factors; in the long-term, it’s largely the expense of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security — a cost driven by the wave of retiring baby-boomers — plus forgone revenue from the 2001-2003 tax cuts.

The GOP’s deficit fantasy backstops its basic fiscal premise: The problem must be solved entirely by reducing spending side. Indeed, the GOP’s presidential hopefuls not only reject any new taxes, they are calling for more tax cuts. A spending-side-only approach would spell large cuts in domestic program spending and big, Ryan-budget-like changes for Medicare and Medicaid.

Republicans have long hoped this election will be a referendum on Obama’s economic stewardship. But with the recovery finally gathering steam, it’s much more likely to be a judgment about the two sides’ competing ideas.

And that’s why it’s entirely appropriate for Obama to take his priorities to the people. With the two parties so far apart that broad agreement seems impossible, voters must decide which course to embrace.

Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.

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