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The President Says the 'Era of Austerity' Is Over -- Is It?

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The nation has been treated to a sneak preview of President Obama's 2015 budget, scheduled to be released next Tuesday. As we asked in Part 1 of this two-part budget update, that's an occasion for reflecting on the nature of a White House budget. Is it a negotiating document? A vision statement? A "political treatise"?

According to the Wall Street Journal, next week's budget will fall in that last category. "Obama Budget Plan Reflects Partisan Lines," says the Journal, which says that it will "serve more as a political treatise than as a fiscal blueprint." That's consistent with an apparently well-sourced item in the Washington Post which says that "Obama will call for an end to the era of austerity that has dogged much of his presidency and to his efforts to find common ground with Republicans."

"President Obama's budget will be a powerful statement of Democratic principles," added Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. This budget comes only a few weeks after President Obama declared inequality to be "the defining moral challenge of our time."

Early reports about the White House budget show no signs of such broad moral sweep or scope. The language is bold. But, at least based on current reports, the proposals don't match up. It's one thing to proclaim the "end of the era of austerity." It's another to explain precisely what that era was, why it came into being, and what we've learned from its tragic failures.

We've been given no indication that the president or his advisers understand what a grave mistake it was to embrace the deficit-cutting rhetoric of the right, to appoint austerians to lead a Presidential Deficit Commission, or of extending the austerity framework even to programs like Social Security (which does not contribute to the federal deficit).

Instead we're being told that the president's plan spending increases (more about those in a moment) are "fully paid for," a phrase which suggests that austerity's ghost still lingers.

To be sure, the president's abandonment of the "chained CPI" Social Security cut is a big step in the right direction. And to the extent that the president's new budget really is a "political treatise" and not a preemptive declaration of compromise, that's a welcome development. But the specifics that have been leaked sound more like a fallback position that a declaration of principles.

Take that Social Security cut. While the president's budget will reportedly abandon it, the Post report and others have taken pains to emphasize that the White House economic team still thinks it's good policy (it's not) and that they say it's still on the table as part of a potential future deficit-reducing deal. That doesn't sound like an era has ended. It sounds more like it's gone into hibernation.

This doesn't sound like a "deal-making" budget, and that's good news. But it doesn't sound like a "vision" budget either. If anything, it's beginning to shape up like a "let's act as if nothing happened" budget, one which ignores the ongoing wreckage from the 2008 financial crisis.

The president has proposed a 1 percent pay increase for Federal employees. After an extended pay freeze, a significantly larger adjustment would be warranted. This low figure leaves the strong impression that austerity, not equality, is calling the shots.

We're told that the president will call for $56 billion in additional spending. But half of that will consist of defense spending. Meanwhile, Defense Department has made headlines by proposing to cut troop levels to their lowest point since before the start of World War II. Bases will be closed. Pensions and other military benefits will also reportedly be cut, a move which would reduce consumer spending at a time when it's badly needed. Base closures will affect local economies, costing additional jobs.

Some weapons systems are reportedly to be mothballed. But, as Politico reports, major defense procurements like the F-35 Lightning II, a new Air Force bomber, the Pegasus tanker, new jet research, and a new Navy frigate will still be on the menu.  That seems precisely backwards. If our nation's post-austerity objectives are jobs and wages -- the engines of equality -- then expensive weapons systems should be cut while troop levels, benefits and pay are maintained.

The military budget isn't the best way to create jobs. But cutting it this way, without added stimulus spending elsewhere, will make a bad situation worse. (There's are also strong non-economic arguments against cutting military pay and benefits.)

And while the president will reportedly drop the chained CPI, we're told that his budget will still call for means-testing Medicare benefits. That, too, is an austerity holdover. Statistically, there are very few ultra-wealthy people collecting Medicare benefits. It would be far more efficient fiscally to simply tax the wealthy.

There's more -- "new corporate tax rules aimed at preventing companies from moving profits overseas to avoid U.S. taxes," according to the Post. That certainly sounds like an improvement from past White House proposals regarding corporate taxation, but further details are needed. And the White House would curb IRA tax breaks for high-earning households -- a good idea, if hardly transformative.

But what is most conspicuous about these early glimpses of the budget is what we don't see in it. A true "post-austerity" budget would pivot to bold action on the crises that are still gripping so many millions of Americans: persistent joblessness and under-employment. Wage stagnation. Lack of social mobility. The un-affordability of higher education. Our decaying infrastructure. The swelled ranks of the impoverished. The daily struggle just to get by.

Nobody expects the president or his advisers to wear sackcloth and ashes. But our national deficit obsession was a disaster -- and it was -- they should tell us what went wrong. If an era is truly ending, they should have taken this opportunity to tell the public why. And if austerity is really dead, as it should be, the president should explain why activist government must take its place.

A post-austerity budget should do more, much more, to address the critical problems our nation still faces. Until one of the parties presents a proposal like that, our society won't get the fundamental debate -- or the choice of ideologies -- that it so richly deserves. As long as our leaders refuse to embrace time-tested methods for restoring jobs and growth, the Era of Austerity will still be with us.