Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 26, 2010

WHEN IS A FREEZE NOT A FREEZE?.... Following up on his much-discussed interview with Rachel Maddow last night, Jared Bernstein, chief economist and economic policy adviser to Vice President Biden, has an item on the White House blog this afternoon. You can probably guess the subject.

As part of an explanation about the spending freeze, Bernstein emphasizes that "no one [at the White House] is arguing that we should take our foot off the accelerator today, when the economic recovery remains fragile and job growth has yet to return." That's good to know.

So, what's the plan here?

[T]here are two ways to do a freeze like this: (1) an across-the-board freeze on every program outside of national security; and (2) a surgical approach where overall totals are frozen but some individual programs go up and others go down. In short, a hatchet versus a scalpel.

During the campaign, you may recall that John McCain touted option 1 -- the hatchet approach of an across-the-board freeze.

The President was critical of that approach then, and we would be critical of it now. It's not what we're proposing. To the contrary, the entire theory of the President's proposed freeze is to dial up the stuff that will support job growth and innovation while dialing down the stuff that doesn't. Under our plan, some discretionary spending will go up; some will go down. That's a big difference from a hatchet.

I guess the problem is that policy-focused Americans woke up yesterday with a rather unambiguous understanding of what a "spending freeze" is -- funding for programs stay at their current levels, even if they were supposed to get more, even if economic conditions dictate that they should get more.

What the White House is effectively saying is, "No, no, that's the old definition. Under the new spending freeze, some worthwhile investments will go up, and some wasteful ones will go down." Indeed, in his post today, Bernstein highlights the need for additional "investments in clean energy, health care, and education that will ensure that the next economic expansion is characterized by broadly shared prosperity."

The moment the discussion starts parsing the meaning of the word "freeze," it gets a little mind-numbing, I suppose the key takeaway here is that the White House is looking for some kind of overall spending cap on discretionary spending not related to national security, which is flexible enough to let the administration direct more funding to some programs, and less funding to others. Officials are calling this a "freeze."

And why, exactly, would the administration call this a "freeze," if it doesn't seem to be a "freeze"? Probably because officials see the polls, and believe the country is looking for assurances that the White House is taking fiscal responsibility seriously. "Freeze" is basically serving as some kind of shorthand.

But when we get past the rhetoric, we're still talking about a White House budget that sought to cut $11.5 billion in spending from the last budget, and will try to cut $15 billion from the new budget.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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Gimmicks and doublespeak do not inspire confidence.

Posted by: PB on January 26, 2010 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

The Dems have been mindlessly using republican terminology since 9/11. These guys really need to read some of George Lakoff's books (or better yet, bring him into the administration) so they can avoid shooting themselves in the face at every turn.

Don't frame policy using your opponents' terminology.

Posted by: bdop4 on January 26, 2010 at 3:11 PM | PERMALINK

Yet another messaging error, which was really the last thing I expected from someone who really seemed to control the message so well during the campaign.

Posted by: doubtful on January 26, 2010 at 3:17 PM | PERMALINK

This WH has no clue how to sell anything. What they need to say is:

We have already found $15 Bil in waste to cut from the budget. Now we're going to find another $15 Bil in cuts and use that money to expand good programs that help people and create jobs.

Instead of redefining the word "freeze" (or more accurately attempting to redefine it and failing) they could define their own position. If one kind of "freeze" is bad and another kind of "freeze" is good, don't call it a "freeze". "Freeze" is passive. You stand still. A 'freeze" isn't change. It's the elimination of change. Even if moving the money around works out well, you've lost the spin war.

Posted by: Tim H on January 26, 2010 at 3:17 PM | PERMALINK

So now they're falling all over themselves to backtrack on their "big announcement" when they realize it pleases nobody outside of a few idiot Blue Dogs?

Whatever. Enough talk. It's way past time we see some positive action. But I'm not holding my breath.

Posted by: Gummo on January 26, 2010 at 3:17 PM | PERMALINK

That would be called a "spending cap" not a "spending freeze."

Posted by: Chesire11 on January 26, 2010 at 3:22 PM | PERMALINK

A starting point: cut all military spending to private contractors; get out of Iraq and Afghanistan abyss.

Posted by: antiquelt on January 26, 2010 at 3:32 PM | PERMALINK

Mostly, this was a whole bunch of overreaction from people who just had to read the tea leaves and come up with their own opinions.

Posted by: pol on January 26, 2010 at 3:39 PM | PERMALINK

If they want to do what they were already planning to do and call it a "freeze", that's fine with me, but only if we get a full-court press on capturing the media spin with it, as a way to cut the GOP off at the knees. If they want to take away a talking point from McCain et al. by doing a "freeze" they'd better be out there convincing everyone it's a freeze with endless repetition and conviction. Think "smoking gun/mushroom cloud" level of media domination.

If they aren't committed to taking the rhetorical/propaganda battle to the mattresses, they should just stop now.

Posted by: biggerbox on January 26, 2010 at 3:47 PM | PERMALINK

Why do I get the impression that the WH is trying to reboot itself?

It's as if an "error" message popped up on their collective radar screens and the prompt was "do you want me to restore your attempts at running a free democracy?" Or some such.

Seriously. Why shouldn't we extend a freeze to military spending? It's no secret that the Pentagon sucks way too much out of our economy and isn't exactly a job engine.

I think the Bush era tax-cuts coupled with the massive war efforts are truly sucking us dry.


Washington responds icily to Obama's frozen attempts at thawing out his popularity.

Posted by: Tom Nicholson on January 26, 2010 at 3:52 PM | PERMALINK

This freeze will be rejected by the Dems on the hill. In fact, early reports already pronounce it pretty much dead. So what did we accomplish here? We accomplished nothing. Obama accomplished distance between him and his left: he proposed a right wing policy, his left rejects it. Obama looks like a moderate. Congressional Dems get screwed. Gotta hate the modern Democratic Party ... idiots all of them.

Posted by: Callimaco on January 26, 2010 at 3:52 PM | PERMALINK

Oh Please...

It's so blatant now, it can be officially decreed, scientifically calculated, and literally defined as Obama style


Posted by: neill on January 26, 2010 at 3:55 PM | PERMALINK

The biggest and easiest to justify cuts are in defense spending......and practically nobody has the political courage to take down this monster.

The bipartisan support for these endless expenditures is corrupting our present, eating our seed corn, and hollowing our our future.

Way to go. Why shouldn't we be like any other empire? They all fell sooner or later, right? But I guess "later" is good enough for our political class.

Posted by: bobbyp on January 26, 2010 at 3:56 PM | PERMALINK

I don't know. That phrase "surgical freeze" gives me chills up & down my spine. It sounds too much like "surgical strikes" And we know how many people accidentally ended up in THOSE crosshairs.

Posted by: Judith Martinez on January 26, 2010 at 3:57 PM | PERMALINK

Pure idiocy.

BTW, you can't freeze defense spending because we have no idea how much we spend or what we spend it on. Brilliant.

Posted by: square1 on January 26, 2010 at 3:58 PM | PERMALINK

At a time when we all desperately need reassurance that the White House and congress are actually semi-coherent human beings, we're subjected to one of the more amazing PR blunder I've ever seen - and just two days before the SOTU!

The GOP wins a senate seat because of an atrocious Dem candidate and a total misread by those thinking it was in the bag, so congress abandons the biggest achievement in half-a-century and the WH turns to GOP platform promises. Wow... this train wreck is just making me ill.

Please tell me it's all just an elaborate joke and/ or they're just playing rope-a-dope until they throw in the sucker-punch. Please.

Posted by: kiweagle on January 26, 2010 at 4:17 PM | PERMALINK

We don't know what the spending freeze is but we are VERY ANGRY ABOUT IT.

Someone said we shouldn't be using republican terminology like "spending freeze". Wait a minute, did the White House use that terminology in the first place? They seem to mostly be using vaguer terms. I've seen the "spending freeze" terminology mostly trumpeted over and over by blogs who are opposed to it (without having basically any information about it yet).

Posted by: mcc on January 26, 2010 at 4:19 PM | PERMALINK

It's not a freeze, it's a chill.

Posted by: Lee A. Arnold on January 26, 2010 at 4:22 PM | PERMALINK

First of all, they are coming from fear on this whole spending freeze. They've let the Rs get to them. Secondly, they are freezing discretionary spending but not defense. Have they become Rs now? We spend as much on defense as the rest of the world..........is a freeze not possible? God forbid there should be any cuts to defense.

Mr. Obama, I think you have lost your way.

Posted by: ted on January 26, 2010 at 4:26 PM | PERMALINK

What does it take for democrats to explain how much two tax cuts, two wars, and medicare prescription drugs have cost us since they were started by Bushco and how much it will cost to continue all this nonsense? Nobody was bitching when all this untax and borrowing went on, yet now all of a sudden there's a problem. I'm tired of this BS and the repubs have no shame for what they did. It doesn't matter who is in power, because there is no fix unless they start to repeal much of what has been created in the past, especially what transpired under Bush. I'm glad I'm 58 years old and perhaps should adopt the personal responsibility crowd attitude of I got mine.

Posted by: Dave on January 26, 2010 at 4:27 PM | PERMALINK

But why the term "spending freeze"? Why not a "re-direction" of budget funds to enhance those programs that work and a reduction in those that don't work. Not more spending but wiser spending with a good potential of deficit reduction. To use "freeze" is stupid and just has set them up for ridicule.

Posted by: fillphil on January 26, 2010 at 4:42 PM | PERMALINK

To use "freeze" is stupid and just has set them up for ridicule.

_Did_ they use the term "freeze," or did the original coverage of the whatever-it-was use the term "freeze"?

Posted by: FlipYrWhig on January 26, 2010 at 5:34 PM | PERMALINK

It seems like the point is to rearrange -- or as fillphil said, "redirect" -- the core budget so as to focus on stimulative priorities; basically, the "freeze" is more like a paid-for stimulus (bump up spending where it stands to multiply into jobs and such, bump down spending that doesn't have that same effect). Right? Does that make sense?

Posted by: FlipYrWhig on January 26, 2010 at 5:40 PM | PERMALINK

_Did_ they use the term "freeze," or did the original coverage of the whatever-it-was use the term "freeze"?

It's their word. Read the excerpt from Bernstein in the post: "To the contrary, the entire theory of the President's proposed freeze blah blah blah"

Posted by: kc on January 26, 2010 at 6:03 PM | PERMALINK

The freeze is more like a slush fund.

Posted by: Michael7843853 on January 26, 2010 at 7:47 PM | PERMALINK

Essentially what Mr. Bernstein seems to be saying is some modification of pay/go. The budget will stay the same, but the money will go into different pockets. Mr. Bernstein defended this on Rachel's show by saying that it was the only way to get around lobbyists who were attached to every appropriation. He never got around to saying why it would work doing it this way but just eliminating or downgrading programs wouldn't work.

He also was trying to say that Obama was pushing for spending increases in job creation categories such as renewable energy. He tried to make it sound like there would be a lot of money going there, but he never managed to explain why there were so many useless programs to be cut that billions of nonmilitary spending could be freed up for job creation.

I don't think that this is a good idea at all.

Posted by: Texas Aggie on January 26, 2010 at 10:36 PM | PERMALINK

The term "freeze" was used by both parties on Rachel Maddow's show, so yes, the people who put it together are calling it a "freeze."

Posted by: Texas Aggie on January 26, 2010 at 10:40 PM | PERMALINK

The entire Obama Administration from top to bottom has now with this "policy" proven they are incompetent fucking morons. Obama is nothing more than a glib bullshitter in a nice suit. Fuck him, fuck them. I regret every goddamned minute I spent raising $350,000 to support them. Bernstein is an asshole.

If these fuckwits think the Republicans are going to believe their "freeze" is a freeze, I want some of whatever it is they're smoking.

They won't convert the enemy and they will lose their friends. God damn their worthless souls.

Posted by: TCinLA on January 27, 2010 at 2:39 AM | PERMALINK

just finished watching SOTU. Genuinely surprised Obama stuck with "spending freeze" terminology let alone the very idea after 2 solid days of heavy, cogent criticism from the Left about it.

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