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In 'fiscal cliff' discussions, there's fact & there's fiction

AS THE POLITICAL posturing gets more intense over the mix of tax increases and automatic spending cuts due to kick in at the end of the year, here's one concession that President Obama should make right now: Conservatives are much better at creating vivid metaphors than progressives are.

Even though it's highly misleading, the budget situation dominating the news has come to be known as the "fiscal cliff," an image that suggests an economic disaster akin to Thelma and Louise driving their Thunderbird convertible into the Grand Canyon.

It's not, but the "cliff-hanger" image does make for high drama. Besides, the Republican leadership of Congress is no doubt nostalgic for the adrenaline rush of 2011, when it held the U.S. economy hostage by refusing to raise the debt ceiling and, in the process, got Obama to agree to a bad deal that they then rejected.

None of the metaphors that progressives have come up with to more accurately describe the issue - "fiscal curb" or "obstacle course" or "austerity crisis" - can compete. Even the noted liberal linguist George Lakoff has thrown up his hands. So we're left with history. And the facts.

The cliff, or whatever it is, was manufactured last year when Republicans in Congress threatened to stiff U.S. creditors for expenditures that Congress had already authorized - unless Obama agreed to permanently extend the $400 billion-a-year Bush-era tax cuts while also making deep reductions in government spending.

Close to a catastrophe that Republicans could have averted at any moment (as every other Congress of either party in history had), Obama agreed to two more years of the tax cuts, plus $900 billion in an immediate cap on government spending. Congress then dropped the responsibility for coming up with another $1.2 trillion in cuts into the laps of a 12-member bipartisan "super- committee." If it failed, and nearly everyone assumed it would, a process called "sequestration" would go into effect, triggering across-the-board cuts in defense, education, transportation and other programs on Jan. 2.

Remember, Congress set the deadline and could extend it - or make adjustments after it has passed. Congress could allow all, some or none of the cuts to take place. It could restore some or none of the Bush tax cuts. It's totally in its own hands.

It's true that if the entire package went into effect, the federal government would have $600 billion less next year, and that would almost certainly lead to another recession. But the biggest danger is not that all the cuts will happen but that fear of them will lead the president to agree to a bad deal, the kind of "balance the budget on the backs of the middle class" deal that a majority of the American people recently voted against.

We now know that in 2011, Obama was ready to accept deep cuts to Social Security and Medicare in exchange for modest tax hikes, and it was only the intransigence of tea party Republicans that saved the nation. As the negotiations continue, it's clear that no deal is better than a deal like that one.