WASHINGTON -- "To cut the deficit, we need everyone to pay their fair share."
That's how President Barack Obama ended a 30-second commercial his reelection campaign released on Tuesday.
Obama is now playing deficit hawk as well as populist. And it looks like an attempt to turn the fight over the Bush tax cuts from a one-front war into a two-front conflict.
The one-front war is Obama arguing that the rich should pay more because that is only fair, and Romney arguing that they should not because any tax increase in a stagnant economy will impair economic growth. To an electorate that wants results more than anything, Obama's fairness argument puts him at a disadvantage, even though it has undoubtedly paid off with blue-collar voters in industrial swing states.
A two-front battle is Obama maintaining the fairness argument while trying to undercut Romney's advantage among voters for whom fiscal responsibility is a top priority. And that's a lot of voters.
The president has fallen far short of fulfilling the promise he made soon after taking office in 2009 that he would cut the $1.3 trillion deficit in half by the end of his first term. In fact, the White House projected this week that this year's deficit will be $1.2 trillion, and barely below $1 trillion in the 2013 fiscal year.
Obama has been arguing for some time that Romney's tax plan will add $5 trillion to the deficit. But he got some ammunition Wednesday from the Tax Policy Center, when Urban Institute-Brookings Institution joint venture issued a report saying that Romney's plan to cut rates for all tax brackets, lower the corporate rate, and keep taxes on investments low, without adding to the deficit, would require taxes to go up for middle- and low-income earners.
"It's either a middle-class tax increase or it increases the deficit," an Obama policy adviser, who was not authorized to talk to the press on the record, told The Huffington Post.
And there you have it. Obama's brief is that Romney is either going to screw the working-class or that he'll be a fiscal profligate. And it doesn't hurt if voters hear both messages.
The Romney campaign disputed the Tax Policy Center report, telling The Huffington Post that it did not take into account ways in which Romney's plan would produce economic growth.
The Tax Policy Center report did not account for any impact on growth from lowering the corporate rate, or from cutting the size of the federal government. There are three legs of the stool for Romney to offset immediate revenue losses from tax cuts: spending cuts, eliminating tax loopholes, and mid- to long-term economic growth.
But eliminating loopholes only goes so far until it begins to touch the middle and lower-class, as the Tax Policy Center report demonstrated.
"Obviously the tax cuts are the dessert, and they are eager to have the fight about that," the Obama adviser said of the Romney campaign. "And the point of today's report is there's no easy way to get there."
The economic growth that might result from tax cuts is hard to predict. And so this debate over how Romney would avoid blowing up the deficit, if it continues, will move toward how much Romney would cut from domestic spending. That plays into Obama's hands as well.
"We are going to continue to try and illustrate the depth of the cuts that would need to be made in the domestic spending programs if we're going to meet the targets that he has laid out," the Obama adviser said.