Is the era of the “grand bargain” over? That was the implication of a number of news stories that pre-framed last night’s speech. “When President Obama delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday evening,” wrote the Washington Post‘s Lori Montgomery, “here’s one thing you won’t hear: an ambitious new plan to rein in the national debt. In recent weeks, the White House has pressed the message that, if policymakers can agree on a strategy for replacing across-the-board spending cuts set to hit next month, Obama will pretty much have achieved what he has called ‘our ultimate goal’ of halting the rapid rise in government borrowing.”
There was indeed a small change in emphasis in this year’s SOTU. The president began by highlighting how much deficit reduction had already been achieved ($2.5 trillion, not including the ACA) and downplayed how much remains to be done to stabilize the debt. He then spent the bulk of his address on job creation and other national priorities that have been languishing for years, including proposals to raise the minimum wage, invest in infrastructure repairs, create wider access to quality pre-kindergarten, reduce carbon emissions, and so on. The key line, rhetorically, was this one: “deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan.”
The deficit-reduction industry isn’t going to close up shop after this speech. You’ll still get to hear from Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles about how Washington’s budget cuts have been insufficiently “hard” or “painful.” Morning cable news hosts, and everyone they know, will still be so convinced that spending is “out of control” that they will find the very idea of checking the data to be laughable. But ever since the Obama administration announced their “pivot” to deficit reduction in 2010, they have been doing little to dissuade the public from believing that we are on the verge of a government debt crisis that demands our immediate attention, and the SOTU suggests that, going forward, the administration may be providing a little less aid and comfort to the deficit hawks.
Unfortunately, the substance of the president’s speech, the economic policy, was still hemmed in by a prioritization of the federal budget balance. Obama pledged, for instance, that none of his proposals would add to the deficit (“nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime”). That’s an unfortunate (and arbitrary) limitation. For policies such as investment in infrastructure repair that are meant to stimulate the economy and create jobs, deficit neutrality is going to be a significant hindrance.
In the Levy Institute’s last strategic analysis, Dimitri Papadimitriou, Greg Hannsgen, and Gennaro Zezza showed how you can do “deficit neutral” economic stimulus: this is mainly due to the different “multipliers” associated with various budgetary changes. However, their simulation of a deficit-neutral stimulus demonstrated that while such policies can boost economic activity (a $150 billion increase in government investment that is “paid for” could reduce the unemployment rate by almost 0.5 percentage points), a deficit-financed stimulus would be more effective. (Their newest strategic analysis and projections for the US economy will be coming out in late February/early March.)
It remains to be seen how these SOTU proposals get fleshed out, but a true pivot away from prioritizing the deficit would mean, instead of promising not to add a dime to the deficit, pledging not pass a budget that removes even one-tenth of a percentage point from growth until the unemployment rate dips below some target level.