Why Obama’s budget is smart politics

at 01:12 PM ET, 02/13/2012

President Obama released a $3.8 trillion budget this morning that includes tax increases, continued infrastructure spending aimed at getting the country out of the economic crisis, and less debt reduction than Obama had previously promised.

And Republicans are pouncing, calling it an irresponsible budget-buster.

That argument was a winner in the 2010 election; today, though, Obama’s budget is a smart political document — at least when it comes to his 2012 reelection campaign.

Basically, Obama’s team is placing its bet on continued economic progress and hoping the American people don’t start caring about debt reduction again.

Think back to the big budget battles of 2011 — the near-government shutdowns, the showdown over the debt ceiling increase — and ask yourself this: Did Republicans come out of those on the winning side?

Supporters of the GOP and even some Democrats may argue that they did, winning some concessions from the president and the Democrats.

But whatever they might have won in the short-term battle, the GOP brand continued to languish. Indeed, for all of Republicans’ efforts to push austerity and budget-cutting, the American people never really rewarded them for their efforts.

And today, the Republican Party is held in as low a regard as it ever has been.

When you consider that and then throw in the decline of tea party fever and some of the economic progress that has occurred over the last few months, the choice for Obama in releasing this budget became pretty clear.

He could propose more spending cuts, try to meet Republicans halfway and risk the recent job increases rolling back over the next nine months. Or he could keep plugging money into the economy, damn the torpedoes, and hitch his wagon to the country’s continued economic progress.

In reality, it wasn’t much of a choice; he’s already going to take the blame for a bad economy; and with this budget, he can take the credit for a good one.

That doesn’t mean Republicans are ceding the issue, of course.

House leadership, the Republican National Committee and the GOP presidential candidates seized upon the budget immediately, calling it another example of Obama’s tax-and-spend priorities that includes no effort to rein in the national debt.

They also said it’s another example of Obama failing to live up to his promises, specifically on deficit reduction and entitlements.

“The President has failed to offer a single serious idea to save Social Security and is the only president in modern history to cut Medicare benefits for seniors,” said Mitt Romney. “I believe we can save Social Security and Medicare with a few common-sense reforms, and – unlike President Obama – I’m not afraid to put them on the table.”

That’s a great sentiment for the Republican base and in a GOP primary, which is Romney’s more pressing concern right now. Republicans also think this budget will be a great tool for recovering the enthusiasm that translated to such big gains in 2010.

But for the broader general electorate, entitlement reform is a dicey issue, and when it comes to choosing between creating jobs and cutting the deficit, the American people are very much on the side of jobs.

A CNN/Opinion Research poll from August showed more than two-thirds of Americans — 68 percent — favored creating jobs even if it means less deficit reduction, over reducing the deficit even if it means unemployment remains high. (Polling on this choice varies widely depending on how the question is worded; but this tracks pretty closely to the Obama Administration’s argument here.)

Republicans may argue that’s a false choice, and that both can be done at once through tax cuts, etc. But that will be impossible to prove over the next nine months. And in politics, these things more often than not come down to a binary choice.

Obama’s team is freely admitting that it is erring on the side of creating jobs, with White House chief of staff Jack Lew saying Sunday that it’s not yet time for aggressive budget cutting.

“We’re on track now. We’ve seen several months of sustained economic growth and job creation, but we’re not out of the woods yet,” Lew said in response to questions about why deficit reduction isn’t more of a priority.

The White House and Obama’s campaign appear to be ready to jam a wedge into the 2012 presidential race, with Republicans firmly on the side of budget cutting and his administration still focused on bringing the economy back first.

And as long as the economy does come back, that appears to be a winning political argument.

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