Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 14, 2011

THE OPENING MOVE.... I'm reluctant to devote too much attention to President Obama's proposed budget for the 2012 fiscal year, since we know going into the process that a Republican-led House probably won't even read it. But it'd be a mistake to simply blow off the White House's proposal -- today's unveiling has substantive and political significance.

On the former, the administration's first two budgets were, by progressive standards, pretty solid documents, presented with the luxury of strong Democratic majorities. This year's budget, obviously, comes in the wake of the midterm elections and the swearing in of the new House GOP majority.

As a result, this new budget is far less encouraging -- it makes painful cuts in some areas, while boosting investments in forward-thinking priorities like infrastructure. It's an infinitely better plan than what Republicans have talked about, but given that the GOP vision is stark raving mad, that's setting the bar for quality at a very low point.

But as the discussion gets underway, let's also note the politics. Jonathan Cohn had a good piece on this overnight.

The most important question about Obama's budget, then, is how well it positions him and his allies in the coming debate over these sorts of priorities.

You could make a case that, by embracing the Republican narrative on the size of government and calling for a five-year budget freeze at present levels, Obama has effectively bid too low in the negotiation over federal spending -- that he's committed himself, and the country, to less government than it needs. (It's happened before!) Or you could make the case that, by making "tough" proposals to cut programs he supports, he's establishing the credibility with voters that he needs in order to marginalize the Republicans and to preserve more spending than might otherwise be possible. (It's happened before!)

I really don't know which argument is right.

Neither do I, but I don't think the "establishing the credibility" tack is necessarily a mistake. I've criticized the Obama White House on several occasions about pre-emptive concessions, and I can see why this would fall under that umbrella -- if the West Wing knows congressional Republicans are going way too far in one direction, perhaps the White House should prepare for coming negotiations by moving aggressively in the other direction, pushing spending increased on everything, better positioning the president to reach a more progressive compromise.

But Obama's preferred approach is about making him appear reasonable against GOP extremism. As the fight progresses, the president will tell the public, "I presented a budget plan with deep cuts, even to programs I care about, which will lower the deficit considerably. Instead of working on a sensible compromise, Republicans are going too far and now want to shut down the government." The point is to push the GOP into fighting the White House to do some very unpopular things -- things the president and his team suspect Republicans will drop when push comes to shove, for fear of a public backlash.

The last time there was a budget showdown like this one was 1995. The new Republican majority overreached, overplayed a weak hand, and lost the public. The likelihood of seeing this play out a similar way 16 years later appears fairly strong.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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I sort of agree with Obama's strategy here, although I'm not happy about it. One point to keep in mind is that Obama wants very much to hold the Democratic Senate majority together-- Republicans are doing their bit in this endeavor by making extreme, no-compromise demands, so now Obama can say "Look, this is what you say you want, right?"

Posted by: MattF on February 14, 2011 at 10:54 AM | PERMALINK

This debate isn't about left versus right, or Democrats versus Republicans. It's about what has worked in the past versus what has failed. It's improving the country's economy versus driving us back into a recession.

Obama likes to compare the economy to driving a car, so here's my analogy:

Obama is driving his car when he notices that the fuel gauge is reading 'empty'. One of his passengers says, "You need to put some gasoline in the fuel tank." The other passenger says, "No! Gasoline is bad for a car. You need to put water in the tank. We've been driving our car on water for the past ten years and it's gotten better milage than any other car in history."

The funny thing about cars is that it only takes a small amount of water in the fuel tank to destroy the engine.

Posted by: SteveT on February 14, 2011 at 11:03 AM | PERMALINK

"...we know going into the process that a Republican-led House probably won't even read it."

That's because they can't read.

Maybe they can dust off Little Boots and have him come back to read at to them? Well, at least their version:
'My Pet Budget."

I'd prefer if Obama went more progressive and pointed out what we really need to do, rather than what he's doing, which seems to me to be feeding into their meme.

The public doesn't want cuts to programs that benefit themselves, just others.
I think Obama needs to point out just how much good government does do, from education, to home mortgages, to highways, water, etc, etc, etc,...

We ALL benefit.
Or we did until the Reagan Unraveling.

Posted by: c u n d gulag on February 14, 2011 at 11:06 AM | PERMALINK

I'm not sure which is the better position, to appear 'reasonable' in contrast to the lunatic fringe's demands; or to be incredulous, and call out the lunacy for what it's for and bank on people rallying behind a strong and well articulated argument.

Posted by: citizen_pain on February 14, 2011 at 11:09 AM | PERMALINK

You know, it's not just the GOP that the President is responding to. The American people have said in a variety of ways that they want to cut government spending. We can argue all we want that the electorate doesn't know what it's asking for and I will agree. But, they still want it, even if they don't want the particulars involved once they know what they are.

That said, the President is giving the GOP every opportunity to act like grown ups and every opportunity to show the electorate (one again) that they are not.

Posted by: AK Liberal on February 14, 2011 at 11:09 AM | PERMALINK

Obama knows better than bloggers what he needs in terms of money and other support for the 2012 election and how to get them. But the most important matter for his re-election will be the state of the economy then; if it is improving rapidly, he will be reelected and if it is declining or has crashed he will not. He has certainly done nothing to prevent another crash and the budget is not something which will cause improvement.

Posted by: skeptonomist on February 14, 2011 at 11:14 AM | PERMALINK

Obama gets to say he offered cuts while investing in the future. The GOP and the Teaparty have internal strife trying to out-wingnut each other. Then he gets to veto whatever piece of crap insanity the GOP sends him. Win-win-win.

Posted by: September on February 14, 2011 at 11:19 AM | PERMALINK

SteveT that was right on the money. I don't know how many analogous stories can be told over and over to get people to understand a simple verifiable fact. The assholes that put us in this bad economy should not be allowed to do it again. Fool me once shame on you, fool me twuce shame on me.

Posted by: Gandalf on February 14, 2011 at 11:27 AM | PERMALINK

I object when Obama embraces faulty Republican narratives. I wouldn't mind as much if he came out and said, this is a bad time to make these cuts, but we have to face the political reality, and both sides must compromise. But when he says that it's sensible to view the federal budget as a family budget and that we need to cut back the way a family does during hard times, I object regardless of the politics, because he's spreading falsehoods.

Posted by: Rick Taylor on February 14, 2011 at 11:28 AM | PERMALINK

But Obama's preferred approach is about making him appear reasonable against GOP extremism.

I agree. Unfortunately, the so-called "liberal media" portrays Republican extremism as just one side of a he-said, she-said narrative and just "leaves it there."

Posted by: Gregory on February 14, 2011 at 11:31 AM | PERMALINK

I can't believe I'm actually recommending a tactic Dubya used to Obama, but given its undeniable success against the Dems during his 8-year tenure, Obama's a fool not employ it against the GOP:
Take your list of demands and then double or triple it prior to the negotiations, then graciously offer to sacrifice some of those superfluous demands until you get down to your original list.

As we've all painfully witnessed over the last 2 years, Obama has done the exact opposite by walking into the negotiations with a list that has already been reduced from its original, and then reduced even further to accommodate the opposition. It's abundantly clear that he's doing the exact same thing with this budget.

God knows I hope Obama doesn't use real money when he plays poker... sheesh.

Posted by: Kiweagle on February 14, 2011 at 11:33 AM | PERMALINK

Ah yes, let's cut heating oil subsidies during one of the most widespread winters on record. Let's keep Social Security recipients from getting another penny in spite of the increases in food costs. But we sure as hell can't touch that Pentagon budget, nosirreee.

Thanks, Obummer, for doing your usual trick of running up the white flag of surrender and then offering to negotiate with people who want you dead. Where did I ever think you were anything but a damn moron???? An eloquent one, yes, but an eloquent moron is still a moron.

Posted by: TCinLA on February 14, 2011 at 11:48 AM | PERMALINK

"Obama's preferred approach is about making him appear reasonable against GOP extremism."

I didn't realize the Obama Party and the Democratic Party were identical. I know you folks in the Obama Party think the only thing that matters is Obama's reelection. Some Democrats still exist, however, who care when Pell Grants and heating oil assistance are cut in the middle of a huge recession.

I mean, Steve, nice try at mitigating Obama's awful budget. "It's not as big a heap of crap as the GOP is offering. Also, trust the Administration's superb negotiating skills!" It's a novel idea, if by "novel" you mean "exactly the same thing Steve always says about everything Obama proposes."

Posted by: Tom Allen on February 14, 2011 at 11:52 AM | PERMALINK

Not that banking on Prez O's five-dimensional chess skills is a sure bet, but isn't it possible fellow Dems will reject the deepest cuts he's proposing when it comes to the actual budget votes? Doing so would free up Obama to sound as conciliatory on cuts as can be while not actually having to follow through.

Posted by: beejeez on February 14, 2011 at 12:28 PM | PERMALINK

I'm with those who think Obama has yet again needlessly negotiated against himself in adopting the GOP narrative.

Now is the time that bold, visionary leadership can pay HUGE dividends. But it takes some courage and you have to believe in yourself.

Beejeez makes a good point, however, and I will do what I can to make sure Dems in Congress reject the bad parts of the bill.

Posted by: bdop4 on February 14, 2011 at 12:37 PM | PERMALINK



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