Obama's Deficit Reduction Plan Takes Heat From Both Sides

President Obama laid out a vision to reduce the national deficit by $4 trillion over 12 years, in a speech yesterday. The President's plan follows the proposal put forward by Republicans, led by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, which would cut five trillion dollars over 10 years. The president's proposal includes trimming spending on defense and health care, as well as ending so-called Bush era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Host Michel Martin discusses the two debt reduction plans with Shelby Blakely, Tea Party Patriots member and Justin Ruben, executive director of progressive organization, MoveOn-dot-org.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

On the program today, we've heard a good deal about President Obama's father, thanks, in part, to his memoir, "Dreams from My Father." But we've learned much less about the president's mother who died of cancer in 1995. Now President Obama's sister is out with a children's book that pays tribute to her and the president's late mother. We'll hear from Maya Soetoro-Ng about her new book. It's called "Ladder to the Moon." That is later in the program.

But we begin with a subject that is so much a part of the national conversation: the federal budget and the need to reduce the national debt. In his speech yesterday, President Obama laid out his vision for reducing the $14 trillion deficit. His plan would cut $4 trillion over 12 years. The president's plan follows the plan put forward by Republicans, led by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, that would cut $4 trillion over 10 years. But the two plans follow two very different approaches.

The president's proposal includes trimming spending on defense and health care, as well as ending the tax cuts passed during the Bush administration for the wealthiest Americans.

President BARACK OBAMA: It's an approach that puts every kind of spending on the table, but one that protects the middle class, our promise to seniors and our investments in the future.

MARTIN: Republicans have already fired back saying that tax increases are a nonstarter. And the interest groups are beginning to weigh in as well. It's clear that this fight is not just about money, but also strong philosophical differences not just about the size of government, but about what government is for.

So we decided to call upon two people who have very different perspectives on that question. We've called Shelby Blakely. She's a member of the Tea Party Patriots and a co-host of the radio show The Brazen 3 on TPRLive.com. And as, of course, many people know, the Tea Party was instrumental in the election of particularly a number of the House freshmen on the Republican side. She joins us from her home office in Atlanta.

Also with us, Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org. That's a group of progressive organizations that were central to the election of Barack Obama in 2008, and progressive movements before that. He's with us from his office in New York.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. JUSTIN RUBEN (Executive Director, MoveOn.org): Thanks for having us.

Ms. SHELBY BLAKELY (Radio Co-host, The Brazen 3): Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: So, maybe we'll just do ladies first. And, Shelby, we'll start with you and just ask you, what is your - just what's your seat-of-the-pants response to the president's proposal?

Ms. BLAKELY: Well, the president's proposal - it wasn't anything we didn't expect. It's always more, more, give the government more. Tea Party position is actually very, very simple. When it comes to the budget, if the word deficit is in it, you need to continue cutting until that word is no longer in your budget.

MARTIN: And what about Mr. Ryan's proposal, Shelby?

Ms. BLAKELY: We're still studying it. There's some support for it. There's a lot more support for Rand Paul's. The Tea Party perspective is that Ryan's budget is the minimum starting point. The absolute minimum for what we believe this country needs to financially survive.

MARTIN: Justin, what about you? Why don't you start with Mr. Ryan's proposal?

Mr. RUBEN: Well, the most important thing people need to know about it is that it would abolish Medicare as we know it and leave seniors at the mercy of private insurance companies. Instead of Medicare, you get a voucher, take it on the private insurance market, if it's not enough, then you're basically up the creek. You know, it'd also slash Medicaid, lots of critical social programs that the most vulnerable folks in our society rely on. And it would do it in order to deliver a huge new raft of tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy. And I think that's just plain wrong.

MARTIN: And what about the president's proposal?

Mr. RUBEN: The best thing about listening to the president last night was hearing him articulate clearly that in America, we take care of each other, that, you know, that there's a long tradition in America of - particularly in tough times that we don't turn on each other, that we get each other's back. And that's at its best what government does. And calling out the Ryan budget for what it is, which is a vision for essentially destroying the American dream for millions and millions of Americans.

MARTIN: Shelby, what about Justin's point? And this is a point that the administration's - members of the administration who are of course now, you know, the president makes a speech and now his surrogates including, you know, members of the Cabinet - then go out to sort of defend the idea. And Justin's making the point that the Republican idea of - Mr. Ryan's proposal essentially tears the social compact that Americans have grown up with.

And they say, if you think things are bad now, do you really want to go back to a time when there was no Medicaid or Medicare, and this is exactly what would happen. How do you respond to that argument?

Ms. BLAKELY: Well, first, I'd like to delineate the difference between Americans taking care of each other and the government taking care of Americans. Those are two very different things. And people do not grow prosperous while the government is taking care of them. But do we need to have some sort of safety network program? Yes. Does the federal government need to be the one administering it? No.

I really like the idea of block granting Medicaid back to the states because it sends the money back to a local level where states, which are a smaller bureaucracy than the federal government, can administer them more efficiently and at cheaper cost.

MARTIN: And what about the point that the president made, you know, in his speech that - how is it possible that the country can't afford, you know, health care and other social supports for seniors and the vulnerable, but it can afford, you know, trillions of dollars in tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. How do you respond to that argument?

Ms. BLAKELY: Well, the Tea Party agrees that the tax code is in severe and desperate need of being overhauled, that would actually equalize it. There's debate within the Tea Party between the flat tax versus fair tax. I personally am more of a flat tax person because I think it is a great equalizer. As far as the wealthiest Americans and giving tax breaks to corporations, there's one thing that corporations give back to America, and that's jobs. And we need a few of those right now.

So while I believe in overhauling the tax system, I'm not pro-corporation. Tea Party Patriots believe in free markets. That does not mean we're pro-corporation. I personally do not like any concentration of power. And the larger a corporation gets, the more cumbersome and burdensome it gets. But the federal government is the biggest corporation of them all.

MARTIN: But that's not part of Paul Ryan's plan. He doesn't talk about overhauling the tax code for the wealthiest people or corporations at all. Is that partly why you haven't wrapped your arms around it yet?

Ms. BLAKELY: That's one of the reasons that we say it is the bare minimum. We believe more should be done.

MARTIN: And Justin, what about Shelby's point, that you can have a social safety net, but it doesn't have to be concentrated in the federal government? How do you respond to that argument?

Mr. RUBEN: Well, you know, I think there are lots of ways. People call the states the laboratories of innovation. That's totally true. I think one of the problems that we see is that often block grants are a way to essentially cut services.

And I think, look, Medicare is a good program that the amount of administrative overhead is extraordinarily low - much lower than in private insurance. If you let Medicare bargain with prescription drug makers it would be an even better program.

You know, if you let Medicare restructure the way doctors are paid so that we don't pay by procedure, but we pay to keep people as healthy as possible, it would work even better. But it's a good program, you know. And I think the idea of shredding it will leave lots of seniors in terrible desperate straits.

MARTIN: Let me just clarify for folks who aren't sure what we're talking about. Medicare is the federal health insurance program for seniors. Medicaid is the health insurance program for people who have low income. Just in case people aren't really clear what we're talking about.

And if you just joined us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the dueling plans for reducing the deficit. President Obama laid out his plan yesterday. Republicans laid out their plan earlier.

We're talking with Shelby Blakely. She's with the Tea Party Patriots. She's a talk show co-host at TPRLive.com. Also with us, Justin Ruben. That's who was just talking just now. He's executive director of MoveOn.org. That's a group of progressive organizations who played a pivotal role in mobilizing support for the Obama election campaign and other progressives. And of course the Tea Party played an important role in mobilizing support for conservative candidates.

In the last couple of minutes that we have left, I want to talk to each of you about both the tone of the conversation going forward and whether you think, given that there really are very different views about what the best way to go forward, whether there really is a realistic way of bridging these differences.

During the president's speech, he was very critical of the Republican plan, not in personal terms, but he just said, you know, so philosophically this just doesn't comport with American values. Paul Ryan, chair of the House Budget Committee, who's been a leader on the Republican side, was very dismissive of the president's plan. This is how he responded to the president's speech at a Republican press conference just after the president spoke.

Representative PAUL RYAN (Republican, Wisconsin): What we got was a speech that was excessively partisan, dramatically inaccurate and hopelessly inadequate to addressing our country's pressing fiscal challenges.

MARTIN: So, Shelby, I'll ask you this question. Do you feel that the debate about the deficit has been productive to this point? Do you share Mr. Ryan's criticism?

Ms. BLAKELY: I think there's a partisanship enough to go around. I think they're both indirectly attacking each other. And I think we - the American need is direct statements. America is tired with the D.C. two-step where you give with one hand and take with the other. When it comes to conversation about the debt and the deficit, I'm hard-pressed to find a person who thinks that government isn't big enough.

But everyone agrees, we need to do something about the debt. We need to do something about the deficit. What is the federal government going to stop doing? What services will they going to stop offering?

MARTIN: Well, can I - let me just stop you, Shelby, can I just stop you there? Everybody does not agree on that. Maybe everybody agrees that the deficit is a problem, that the debt is - the national debt is a problem, certainly. But everybody does not agree about what the government should do, as evidenced by our conversation here today. So the question then becomes, what do you do about that?

Ms. BLAKELY: Well, from the Tea Party perspective, government needs to shrink. We believe the government has grown too large. It is too cumbersome. It is too much of a bureaucracy and there's been blatant constitutional power grabs. These are the things that need to be cut away.

MARTIN: Justin, what about Shelby's point? There's been a lot of reporting lately that progressives are particularly disappointed with the president because they don't feel that he's standing up for that vision of government. Is that true? And what do you think the implications are going forward?

Mr. RUBEN: Look, I think twice now we've seen Republicans essentially willing to hold the nation hostage, first in the debate over the tax cuts for the rich and then again in the budget debate that happened last week, and in service of an agenda that's basically about balancing the budget on the backs of poor people, the middle class folks and giving more tax breaks to rich people.

So, what the president - you know, both of those cases has said that's not what he stands for, but fundamentally, this is a question of whether we're going to allow Republicans to continue to hold the nation hostage.

MARTIN: All right. Justin Ruben is executive director of MoveOn.org. That's a progressive organization that played a pivotal role in mobilizing support for the Obama election campaign. He was on the line with us from his home office in New York. Shelby Blakely is a member of the Tea Party Patriots. She's a talk show co-host on the Tea Party platform, TPRLive.com.

And of course the Tea Party played a pivotal role in organizing support, in rallying support for conservative candidates in the last election - the midterm election particularly. They're associated with the election of a significant number of the House Republican freshmen. She joined us on the line from her home office in Atlanta.

I thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. RUBEN: Thanks for having us both.

Ms. BLAKELY: Thanks for having us.

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