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Obama's budget gives it to U.S. straight

President Barack Obama gambled big Thursday when he unveiled his first budget. He treated taxpayers like grown-ups. His extraordinary candor about what Washington spends, and what he thinks it will cost to get the economy out of the tank and on course for a sound future, is refreshing.

The figures are huge - $3.6 trillion to be spent in 2010, with almost $1.2 trillion of it to be borrowed. And the spending plan signals a sharp, maybe even historic, change of direction on taxes and the role of government. By baldly laying his cards on the table, Obama is betting that the public can handle the truth. It needs to.

- Click here to see the latest photos of President Barack Obama

The economy is in a tailspin. It contracted at a 6.2 percent pace in the last three months of 2008, the Commerce Department reported Friday - its worst performance in decades. The White House announced the same day that it will take a 36-percent stake in Citigroup. Those are ominous reminders that the nation has critical decisions to make in order to turn things around. Obama's truth in budgeting will help to make them informed ones.

First, he ditched Washington-style budget sleight-of-hand and honestly laid out what the government will actually spend. It has been common for presidents from both parties to employ gimmicks to make their choices appear more palatable.

Obama explicitly rejected some of the more egregious budgeting practices of his immediate predecessor. President George W. Bush never included the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in his budgets, for instance, opting instead to treat those military campaigns as emergencies and fund them off the books. He took a similar approach with the entirely predictable $60 billion it cost the Treasury for each year that Congress spared 20 million taxpayers the expensive bite of the alternative minimum tax. Bush also budgeted nothing for federal disaster response, though natural disasters invariably occur. Obama included all three things in his 10-year budget.

Next, he made it clear that laying the groundwork for a strong economy down the road won't be free. Want to kick fossil fuels for a green future? How about reforming how we pay for health care, so we can get more for our dollars and reduce the ranks of the uninsured? Want to keep Medicare solvent? Get a bigger federal contribution for our schools? Repair and maintain roads, bridges, airports and mass transit? Build a modern energy grid?

It will all cost money, a fact Obama didn't sugarcoat. He budgeted funds as a down payment for those priorities. And he proposed taxes and identified savings to help cover the tab.

The message to taxpayers and Capitol Hill? Quit the magical thinking. These things won't pay for themselves. And we can't just continue to borrow and spend and pass the bill to our kids.

We can argue about the larger role for government that Obama envisions for the nation. And we can argue about whether high earners should pay higher taxes. But by putting his ideas into budgetary black-and-white, Obama has challenged taxpayers to make realistic choices about what they want from government - and then to pay for it.

It's what grown-ups do.

Deficits of almost $1.8 trillion in 2009 and $1.2 trillion in 2010 are daunting, particularly following seven years of red ink that have left the nation buried under $10.9 trillion of debt. But while Obama wants to extend tax cuts for the middle class, much of the current explosion of spending is designed to rescue the financial system, stimulate the economy and create jobs. So it should be temporary.

The president is counting on the economy to be growing by 2011. Then the plan for increased taxes on high-income payers would make it possible for Obama to keep his pledge to halve the deficit by 2013. Determining when and how to go from stimulus spending to deficit reduction will be tricky, but doing it is essential.

None of this will be easy or certain. But by rejecting stealth spending and honestly confronting costly choices about the nation's problems, Obama has challenged us all to do the same.

- Click here to see the latest photos of President Barack Obama

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