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Obama Tries To Move Spotlight Off Deficit Reduction


Pre-school is one example of how President Obama says the government can play a constructive role in the U.S. economy. In his State of the Union speech, President Obama tried to refocus a debate that, for two years, has been all about cutting. The president is highlighting government programs that even many Republicans support.

Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The U.S. economy is slowly recovering from the Great Recession, but President Obama says the government could be doing more to help.


HORSLEY: But, for the most part, that's not the conversation Washington's been having for the last two years. Instead, as the government has lurched from one self-imposed budget deadline to the next, policymakers in both parties have focused on almost nothing but cutting the deficit.

Obama acknowledged the government does need to get control of its red ink, but not, he said, to the exclusion of everything else.


HORSLEY: Pollster Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Center thinks the president is onto something.

CARROLL DOHERTY: He tried to keep the deficit in perspective, and I think that's sort of in tune with where the public is, because, you know, when we ask a different measure about what's your biggest economic worry, there you see, consistently, significantly more saying jobs than the deficit.

HORSLEY: Even though concern about the deficit has grown sharply in the last four years amid mounting debt and a steady drumbeat of dire warnings, polls show even more Americans want the government to fix the economy.

In his inaugural address last month, Obama stressed that'll take hard work and personal responsibility. But he also said there's long been a role in the U.S. for collective government action.


HORSLEY: In fact, many on the left would like to see a more activist government. Economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research says rather than the current debate over automatic spending cuts, the government should be running up bigger deficits to help the millions of Americans who are still out of work.

DEAN BAKER: You have places like the United Kingdom, certainly many of the eurozone countries, that have gone the route of austerity. And you can point to those and go, look. This hasn't worked. They've had high unemployment. They've gone back into recession. That can't be a good thing for us to do.

HORSLEY: But Congressional Republicans continue to argue for deeper cuts in federal spending. In the Republican response to Obama's speech this week, Florida Senator Marco Rubio sounded a lot like Mitt Romney, arguing the best thing the government can do for the economy is get out of the way.


HORSLEY: Rubio's ode to self-reliance was somewhat undercut when he acknowledged that federal student aid helped him go to college, and that his mother and his Florida neighbors depend on their Medicare and Social Security.

Obama is deliberately highlighting preschool programs in heavily Republican states like Georgia and Oklahoma, to make the case that these kinds of investments enjoy bipartisan support.

He's long argued that despite criticism from the right, smart government can do more than redistribute wealth. It can also help to make more of it.


HORSLEY: However that argument plays around the country, it's yet to make much of a dent here in Washington, where policymakers are still preoccupied with the next round in the deficit-cutting derby. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.