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Deficit reduction: Is Obama's $4 trillion goal big enough?

Though their plans differ dramatically, President Obama and the GOP agree that the deficit needs to be reduced by about $4 trillion over the next 10 to 12 years, in order to reassure credit markets and get the debt under control.

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President Obama meets with the the co-chairmen of his deficit reduction commission in the Oval Office, April 14.

Carolyn Kaster / AP

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President Obama set what sounds like an ambitious target this week: Cut the federal deficit by a total of $4 trillion over the next dozen years.

It's a popular number. Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin set a similar goal last week. The president's deficit commission aimed to cut about the same amount from the deficit over nine years.

But for all the attention on the number – $4 trillion – it's not so obvious how big that number really is.

Is it too small to dent the nation's federal debt problem? So big that the resulting austerity will be draconian? Or a Goldilocks amount – just the right balance for taxpayers and the economy?

First, for context, the president's number would not eliminate budget deficits. Rather, he's seeking to reduce annual deficits to a level where the economy is growing faster than the national debt. The result, if Mr. Obama's goal is achieved, would be that public debt would begin to decline as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP).

Some nonpartisan experts on government finances say the Obama number is a good start, but that it falls a bit short of what the country needs.

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