The promises are getting more specific

In Focus -- Politics

May 18, 2008|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- Lofty is out. Lists are in.

On economic issues, Sen. Barack Obama has deflated his soaring rhetoric as he moves closer to the Democratic nomination. Instead, he's focusing on specifics. Recent speeches are packed with detailed lists of assistance for middle-class families, senior citizens, students and job seekers.

"We're going to provide an income tax cut to ordinary families, like the ones that work in this plant, that's worth up to a thousand dollars per family per year," Obama said during an appearance at a Missouri clothing manufacturer last week.

"If you are a senior citizen, and you are bringing in $50,000 a year in income or less, then we don't want you to even pay income tax on your Social Security, because you are on fixed income and you need that money to keep up with rising costs," he said.

Obama was in Missouri the same day that voters in West Virginia gave Sen. Hillary Clinton a huge victory, sustaining her candidacy.

Nearly two in three West Virginia Democrats said the economy was their top concern, according to exit polling, while 17 percent named Iraq as the country's most immediate problem.

The economy was also the leading issue in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan - important swing states in the fall election. Obama lost the Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries to Clinton and took his name off the Michigan ballot when the state was penalized for changing the date of its primary election.

Some voters have said they prefer Clinton over Obama because of the New York senator's specific economic solutions. Obama delivers a fine speech, some say, but there's not enough substance behind it.

The Obama campaign is out to prove that the Illinois senator has just as many concrete ideas as Clinton. Obama is conducting fewer events in big arenas, turning to question-and-answer settings in smaller settings.

In Cape Girardeau, Mo., the birthplace of conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh, Obama's remarks were "were long on substance and short on the sizzle for which he is often known," wrote Jo Mannies of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

In addition to the middle-income and senior citizen tax breaks, Obama championed a proposal to reduce the cost of employer-provided health insurance by $2,500 a year and to establish employer-based retirement accounts to supplement Social Security funded with "some matching funds" from the federal government.

He wants a $4,000 college tuition tax credit for "every student, every year," and more money for roads, bridges and "broadband lines in rural communities" paid for with funds now being spent on the Iraq war.

A day later, in Michigan, he backed John Edwards' call to cut poverty in half in the next 10 years.

Obama is repeating the pledges as he operates in a kind of campaign limbo. He's not the presumptive nominee, but he'd like to be seen that way. He can't ignore Clinton, and he can't focus solely on Republican John McCain.

He is visiting not just those states with pending primaries, but those that will be important in the general election. Everywhere he goes, the economy is foremost on voters' minds.

If talk is cheap, policy can be expensive. Each of Obama's ideas - as well as those of Clinton and McCain - carries a price tag. The costs of the proposals, and how they will be paid for, get discussed much less on the campaign trail.

The National Taxpayers Union, which advocates lower taxes and smaller government, pegged the cost of Obama's platform at $307 billion yearly. That was in March, the last time the group updated its figure; at the time, Clinton's agenda cost $226 billion yearly, and McCain's was $6.9 billion, the group said.

Republicans say Obama's total is higher when other less-specific pledges are included.

"He'll tell each group about what he will do for them but what he won't say is that his plans far exceed half a trillion in new spending, and even though he promises middle class tax relief on the campaign trail, he voted for a budget that would raise taxes on individuals making as little as $32,000," said Blair Latoff, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

James R. Horney, a former deputy Democratic staff director for the Senate Budget Committee, puts little stock in those calculations.

"It's very difficult in any political campaign to really do careful analyses," said Horney, who is in charge of federal fiscal policy at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "Candidates, for all sorts of reasons, just don't provide as detailed proposals as you get in the president's budget or you get in congressional committees."

Obama deserves credit, Horney said, for supporting pay-as-you-go practices for the federal budget, meaning that new spending would be offset by cuts elsewhere or additional revenue.

McCain is proposing spending cuts through elimination of earmarks, but also backs more money for the military.

Still, the Arizona senator's priorities carry a cost that is easier to quantify than Obama's, said Aviva Aron-Dine, an analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

McCain backs making the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 permanent, repealing the alternative minimum tax, accelerated corporate tax write-offs and a doubling of the tax exemption for dependent children. Together, those measures would result in a $5.7 trillion reduction in federal revenue over 10 years, Aron-Dine said.

For now, all of those proposals are just ideas. It's not worth getting too caught up in costs, analysts say, because much will change as Congress weighs in and priorities shift over time.

The hiatus on lofty speeches will assuredly end if Obama gets the nomination. There would be a speech at the convention, and, possibly at an inauguration.

But then lists will return, in the form of budgets and legislation as the next president tries to turn campaign promises into reality.

david.nitkin@baltsun.com

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