During last year's campaign, President Obama vowed to enact a bold agenda without raising taxes for the middle class, a pledge budget experts viewed with skepticism. Since then, a severe recession, massive deficits and a national debt that is swelling toward a 50-year high have only made his promise harder to keep.
The Obama administration has insisted that the pledge will stand. But the president's top economic advisers have refused to rule out broad-based tax increases to close the yawning gap between federal revenue and government spending and are warning of tough choices ahead. ...
Obama, meanwhile, has vowed to pay for any new initiatives and to draft an overhaul of the health-care system that eventually would save the government money, driving deficits down. But effective health reforms would take decades to produce savings. In the meantime, White House budget director Peter R. Orszag acknowledged, "there are additional steps that will be necessary."
"The administration is very concerned about these [future] deficits, and getting those deficits under control is a top priority of the administration," Orszag told reporters this week as he rolled out a new economic forecast that added $2 trillion to deficit projections from 2010 to 2019.
Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and White House economic adviser Lawrence H. Summers have both delicately sidestepped the tax question on Sunday talk shows. Orszag has also refused to discuss what steps Obama might take to reduce the deficit in the budget blueprint he will present to Congress in February. But budget analysts say he has few real options.
"If you rule out inflating our way out of the problem and defaulting on the debt, there are two ways: Cut spending or raise taxes," said William G. Gale, an expert on fiscal policy at the Brookings Institution. With more than 80 percent of federal spending devoted to politically untouchable programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, he said, "it's going to be really hard to make significant headway on the spending side. So that means you've got to think about taxes."
Another area of concern is the interest on debt: an area of spending Obama has no influence over. But by contrast, an Obama tax hike to help pay down debt may not even require Congress' approval:
Obama could raise taxes without taking any legislative action. If he let all the Bush tax cuts expire next year and refused to enact legislation to restrain the alternative minimum tax, deficits would be about $200 billion a year lower and the debt would stop growing as a percentage of the economy, according to Gale's analysis of new data from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. But that would mean big tax increases for most American families, violating Obama's pledge.