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Opinion: Obama's budget proposal signals start of 2012 election season

US President Obama has presented his proposal for tackling America's looming debt bomb. However, Obama's proposal has more to do with presidential politics than budget deficits, according DW's Christina Bergmann.

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Democrats and Republicans' attitude toward the state's massive debt demonstrates just how deep the political divide between the two parties truly is.

In just a few weeks, at the latest in a few months, the federal government's debt will surpass the legally fixed ceiling of $14.3 trillion (10 trillion euros). By September, America's debt will be greater than the total value of the goods and services produced by its economy.

Ideological divide

It will require a bipartisan effort to make the country fiscally solvent again. But the two parties are showing their ideological stripes in their respective proposals for saving money.

The concept of a social-welfare state characterized President Obama's keynote address on the national debt Wednesday. According to Obama, the community-at-large has to care for the weakest members of society, because anyone can have bad luck. It cannot be the case that billionaires pay less taxes while retirees have to pay more for their health insurance. To European ears, that all sounds reasonable.

Christina Bergmann

Christina Bergmann is Deutsche Welle's Washington correspondent

However, American conservatives react reflexively to this conception of the state, labeling it with the unflattering name "Socialism." So the Republicans' response to Obama's address was to be expected. They argued that Obama is using scare tactics to get the American people to support an ideologically motivated agenda that does not go far enough in cutting spending.

The conservatives drew a red line, clearly stating they will not support tax hikes. Yet at the same time, they said that social programs which provide health insurance for the poor and elderly as well as unemployment benefits are close to their hearts. Nobody likes to be accused of hanging the weak out to dry.

Coming clean

And that gets to the heart of the problem. The President himself indicated that entitlement programs and defense spending make up two-thirds of the state budget. Without making cuts in these two areas, the United States cannot put the brake on its soaring debt.

However, Obama avoided coming clean with the American people. He wants to be reelected in 2012 and cannot irritate his base. In fact, he just announced his candidacy last week. This speech was about reducing the state debt only on the surface. In reality, it was the start of his reelection campaign. The looming debate over raising the debt ceiling threatens to become a bitter battleground in the coming struggle for the presidency.

For the rest of the world, this means that the United States and its president will be preoccupied with domestic issues. The limited deployment of the American military in Libya demonstrated what can be expected from Washington in the near future. America lacks not just the interest and the will to play first fiddle all over the world. It also simply lacks the money.

Author: Christina Bergmann/ sk
Editor: Rob Mudge

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