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Obama Introduces Win-win-win Budgeting

The Times reports today that Obama and budget director Peter Orszag are experimenting with something fairly new in preparing their budget: honesty.

For his first annual budget next week, President Obama has banned four accounting gimmicks that President George W. Bush used to make deficit projections look smaller. The price of more honest bookkeeping: A budget that is $2.7 trillion deeper in the red over the next decade than it would otherwise appear, according to administration officials.

The new accounting involves spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Medicare reimbursements to physicians and the cost of disaster responses.

But the biggest adjustment will deal with revenues from the alternative minimum tax, a parallel tax system enacted in 1969 to prevent the wealthy from using tax shelters to avoid paying any income tax.

It's tough to overstate how smart a move this is. For one thing, it's kinda helpful to have a budget that actually means something when you're debating public policy, so the substantive merits speak for themselves. But the politics of this are also inspired. Why not make the long-term deficit look as large as possible at the beginning of your term? Not only can you fairly blame your predecessor at that point; the bigger the deficit looks, the easier it is to show progress, which Obama will need to do as he runs for re-election. To take one example, you can't claim savings from drawing down in Iraq if you don't put Iraq spending on the budget in the first place (which Bush mostly didn't).

On top of which, everyone will rightly applaud your honesty and transparency, as I'm doing here. It's as close to a no-brainer as you get in politics, which is why it's utterly mystifying that so few presidents have done it. 

The only downside is that reporters will be keen to bust you for hypocrisy if you fudge the numbers in 2012, which is when you have a real political incentive to do so.

Update: John Cole, who sees this as a much riskier move politically than I do (though I'd guess the White House agrees with me), has a great suggestion:

The first thing I would do if I were Peter Orszag and company, and this is one of the very few times I actually hope someone in government listens to me, is to go back and re-score the last decade or so of budgets using the new accounting system, so when they roll this out they can say "Here is what this year's budget would have looked like under the old system. Here is what it looks like under the new system. Here are the past ten years worth of budgets under the old system. Here they are under the new system." For political reasons, this simply has to be done.

(Via Steve Benen.)

--Noam Scheiber