Editor's note: Dean Baker, an economist, is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a progressive economic policy organization. He is author of "The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive."
(CNN) -- We have just passed into the new year, and the distractions created by the debate over the fiscal cliff appear to be behind us. Maybe.
That debate has been part of a larger distraction -- the concern over budget deficits at a time when by far the country's most important problem remains the economic downturn caused by the collapse of the housing bubble. The obsession with budget deficits is especially absurd because the enormous deficits of recent years are entirely the result of the economic downturn.
In spite of this, the leadership of both parties has elevated the budget deficit to be the top and virtually only issue in national economic policy. This means ignoring the downturn that continues to cause enormous amount of unnecessary suffering for tens of millions of people.
But fears of big deficits are preventing us from giving the same sort of boost to the economy that got us out of the Great Depression. The explanation is simple: profits have returned to prerecession levels.
This means that from the standpoint of the people who own and run American businesses, everything is pretty much fine. Moreover, they see the deficits created by the downturn as providing an opportunity to go after Social Security and Medicare.
The Campaign to Fix the Debt, a nonpartisan organization involving many of the country's richest and most powerful CEOs, sets out to do just that. It has become standard practice in Washington for Wall Street types and other wealthy interests to finance groups to push their agenda.
The Campaign to Fix the Debt involves the CEOs themselves directly stepping up to the plate and pushing the case for cutting Social Security and Medicare as well as lowering the corporate income tax rate.
It's clear what's going on here. We don't need any conspiracy theories.
CEOs from both political parties have openly come together to demand cuts in Social Security and Medicare, two programs that enjoy massive political support across the political spectrum. The wealthy are joining hands without regard to political affiliation to cut benefits that enjoy broad bipartisan support among everyone who is not rich.
President Barack Obama has an opportunity to show real leadership. He should explain to the public the basic facts that all budget experts know: We do not have a chronic deficit problem. The big deficits are the result of collapsed economy. The priority of the president and Congress must be to put people back to work and bring the economy back up to speed.
When the housing bubble burst, annual spending on residential construction fell back by more than 4% of GDP, which is $600 billion in today's economy. Similarly, consumption plunged as people drastically curtailed their spending in response to the loss of $8 trillion in housing bubble generated equity.
There is no easy way for the private sector to replace this demand. Businesses don't invest unless they see demand for their products, regardless of how much love we might shower on the "job creators." In fact, if anything, investment is surprisingly strong give the large amount of excess capacity in the economy. Measured as a share of GDP, investment in equipment and software is almost back to its prerecession level. It is hard to envision investment getting much higher, absent a major boost in demand from some other sector.
This is why it is necessary for the government to run large deficits. Ideally, the money would be spent in areas that will make us richer in the future: Education, infrastructure, research and development in clean energy, etc. There is just no way around a large role for the government given the economy's current weakness.
Obama needs to explain this simple story to the country. The rich of both parties will hate him for going down this route. They will use their powers to denounce him. But the American people support Social Security and Medicare, and they support an economy that creates jobs for ordinary workers.
Obama needs the courage to tell the truth.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Baker.