Week In News: Spending Bill

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President Obama put a positive spin on the deal struck in Congress late Friday night, applauding Democrats and Republicans for agreeing to a budget that "invests in our future." The budget deal makes the largest annual spending cut in U.S. history. James Fallows of The Atlantic tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer the president's reaction is surprising, given his past emphasis on government spending as a critical component in the nation's economic recovery.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

President BARACK OBAMA: This agreement between Democrats and Republicans, on behalf of all Americans, is on a budget that invests in our future while making the largest annual spending cut in our history.

WERTHEIMER: That was President Obama on last night's zero-hour budget deal. James Fallows of The Atlantic joins us, as he does most Saturdays.

Hello, Jim.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (National Correspondent, The Atlantic): Hello, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So when you heard the President make that announcement in the Blue Room at the White House last night, what were your thoughts?

Mr. FALLOWS: That was a, to me, a surprising and perhaps consequential choice he made in how to cast this agreement, because you could have imagined him saying something as he did more or less when the Bush tax cuts were extended last year when he said he didn't like many aspects of this agreement with the Republicans, but for the larger good of the economy, he thought it was important to go forward.

And he could have said something similar in this case saying that in a time when unemployment is still 9 percent, he thought it was unwise to make such serious cuts in the budget this year no matter how you look towards a long-term deficit issue.

But instead, he decided to ally himself with the idea that the largest cuts in history were a good thing to do now. I thought there was an interesting tension between his role as the president who wants to be responsible for effective agreements and getting things done and the president and party leader who had argued for the importance of stimulative spending to fight unemployment.

WERTHEIMER: Many economists obviously weren't against spending cuts while the economy is recovering. And the president has often done that also. Do you suppose this is a calculation on his part that this very determined group of Republicans really did not leave him with much choice and he might as well make the best of it?

Mr. FALLOWS: Well, certainly in terms of accepting the deal, all of the correlation of forces, as they say in the military world, seem to indicate that if both sides and especially the administration wanting to avoid a shutdown with all the predictable and unforeseen ripple effects that would have, then they each had to agree.

So I think the interesting choice was the way the president decided to present this. This is essentially a successful agreement rather than one he was accepting with reluctance.

WERTHEIMER: Of course, avoiding a government shutdown is far from the end of the battle. Earlier in the program, we heard about the next two big fiscal showdowns. The first over the debt ceiling, that happens quickly next month, and the next year's budget debate.

Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan has already offered his plan for 2012. What are your thoughts on that?

Mr. FALLOWS: I thought the most striking thing about this plan was the disproportion between the plan itself and its merits and the almost unbridled acclaim it received in many parts of the pundit-sphere for the first couple of days after it was announced.

The plan itself is more or less a predictable, and I don't mean that disparagingly, but it's a representative Republican proposal. It has its first priority in reducing tax increases or the prospect of them for the foreseeable future. It wants to control deficits, but it does that mainly by mandating that there'll be a reduction in health care cost, which is important, but without saying how that would happen.

And there were a few days in which this was received as unprecedented in its boldness and courage. I think that the way that the Democrats can respond to that is to say, yes, that we, too, recognize that health care cost will become unsustainably large in the long run. That's part of what the administration tried to address with its health care bill last year, and it's something where they will find their own proposals to deal with too.

WERTHEIMER: James Fallows is national correspondent for The Atlantic. You can read his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com.

Jim, thanks so much.

Mr. FALLOWS: Thank you, Linda.

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