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Democrats Find Deficit Spending A Tough Sell
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Democrats Find Deficit Spending A Tough Sell


Democrats Find Deficit Spending A Tough Sell
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Melissa Block.


And Im Michele Norris.

President Obama's Deficit Commission will hold its second meeting tomorrow, and it comes at a moment when the leaders of the world's biggest economies are turning away from stimulus and toward deficit reduction. Polls also show U.S. voters are increasingly concerned about the national debt and the deficit.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: The political attraction of belt tightening, in theory at least, is proving to be a real obstacle to President Obama's plan to create jobs by spending more borrowed money on unemployment benefits and state aid. Today, the Democrats suffered their latest in a string of defeats when they failed to get the votes in the House to extend unemployment benefits.

Democratic Congressman Chris Van Hollen is the head of his party's campaign committee, and he knows Democrats have a tough argument to make.

Representative CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-MD, Chairman, Congressional Campaign Committee): It's absolutely essential that we continue to focus on jobs acceleration, but also take steps today to make it clear that we're on a predictable path toward spending and deficit reduction. And while those messages sometimes get mixed in the public debate, the fact is they are perfectly consistent.

LIASSON: The argument for short-term deficit spending and longer term austerity may be perfectly consistent to economists and many Democrats, but it's darn hard to explain.

Here's Vice President Joe Biden.

Vice President JOSEPH BIDEN: On the larger question of deficit versus job creation and stimulus, it's kind of an important point that understandably -Im not being a wise guy when I say this - understandably difficult to sort of - it's not intuitively arrived at.

LIASSON: And it may not be just a communications problem. There are some in the White House who are beginning to think it may no longer be possible to pass any more stimulus bills unless they are very narrowly targeted and largely paid for. Thats because the public is no longer receptive to the Keynesian idea that adding to deficit will ease the recession.

Representative STENY HOYER (D-MD, Majority Leader): Debt is a dominant part of the political landscape now.

LIASSON: Here's the Democratic majority leader in the House, Steny Hoyer, acknowledging the new reality.

Rep. HOYER: This month, a Gallup poll asked Americans to name the greatest threat facing our country. Two answers tied for the top choice: one was terrorism, the other was debt. This is a remarkable moment, I think, in our political history.

LIASSON: A remarkable moment, Hoyer said, when $9 trillion of publicly-held debt troubles Americans as much as another terrorist attack.

Mr. JIM KESSLER (Vice President, Policy, Third Way): I think the Democrats are in a bind.

LIASSON: Jim Kessler is the vice president for Policy at Third Way, a moderate Democratic think-tank that was the venue for Hoyer's speech last week.

Mr. KESSLER: So in the short-term, you want to see more spending because youve got to continue to stimulate this economy, and youve got to makes sure that we are creating jobs. But constituents right now are very deficit-sensitive, whether it is short-term or long-term, and they're putting pressure on members of Congress to put on the brakes.

LIASSON: It used to be hard to vote against extending unemployment benefits in a recession, but not any more, when you explain the way Republican leader Mitch McConnell did on the floor of the Senate last week.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY, Minority Leader): What we're not willing to do is to use worthwhile programs as an excuse to burden our children and our grandchildren with an even bigger national debt than we've already got.

LIASSON: Of course, the Republicans do have strategy of blocking almost all the president's proposals. But the White House does have another problem. It's trying to convince voters it has the right plan at a time when there is a great distrust of government.

Again, Jim Kessler.

Mr. KESSLER: I think we're in a situation right now where the American public isnt really believing things that are coming out of Washington. And I think that skepticism is running up against this deficit fever.

LIASSON: The combination of the two is powerful. It's part of the reason why despite all of President Obama's recent efforts, the Deficit Commission, a domestic spending freeze and a return pay-go rules, the public still isnt convinced he means business.

On Sunday at the G-20 meeting in Canada, a frustrated Mr. Obama warned the GOP that soon theyll have to put their money where their mouth is.

President BARACK OBAMA: Next year, when I start presenting some very difficult choices to the country, you know, I hope some of these folks who are hollering about deficits and debt step up, cause Im calling their bluff. And we'll see how much of the political arguments they're making right now are real and how of it was just politics.

LIASSON: But next year may not be soon enough for voters. If a debate about austerity is going to be the next chapter in American fiscal politics, its coming a little sooner than the Obama team anticipated.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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