Softening the Wish List

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

WITH CONGRESS poised to rewrite his budget, President Obama subtly signaled last night that he understood that he could not have everything on his ambitious wish list. Granted, you had to be listening pretty closely to hear that. Mr. Obama reaffirmed his triumvirate of spending priorities -- health care, energy and education -- as essential to avoiding a repeat of the boom-and-bust cycle that helped produce the current economic crisis. "That's why this budget," he said, "is inseparable from this recovery: because it is what lays the foundation for a secure and lasting prosperity."

But asked twice whether he would accept a budget that did not include provisions for additional tax cuts for the middle class, or that did not launch a cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Mr. Obama demurred. Instead, he called for "a serious energy policy that frees ourselves from dependence on foreign oil and makes clean energy the profitable kind of energy" -- implicitly suggesting that cap-and-trade, though he supports it, might have to wait. As for the middle-class tax cut that Mr. Obama would pay for with revenue from a cap-and-trade program, the president said, "we already had that" in the stimulus package. "We know that that's going to be in place for at least the next two years. We had identified a specific way to pay for it. If Congress has better ideas in terms of how to pay for it, then we're happy to listen."

When Mr. Obama ticked off his "bottom line," he included "serious efforts to reduce our budget deficit," but the efforts in his budget are not serious enough. Cutting the deficit in half is an unimpressive promise given the state of the deficit; the more important question is getting deficits down to a sustainable level. Instead, according to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, Mr. Obama's budget envisions spending over 23 percent of gross domestic product almost every year, while collecting less than 19 percent of GDP in taxes. If his priorities are important enough to spend money on, the president owes Congress and the country a vision of how he would generate sufficient revenue to meet the needs.

Mr. Obama appeared to signal flexibility in another area, too: stem cell research. When he announced a new policy on March 9, he said he would approve federal funding on stem cells derived from embryos, with no mention of limitations or restrictions; he said he would ask the National Institutes of Health to draw up regulations. Last night, unlike in his original announcement, he referred to "embryos that are typically about to be discarded," of which many thousands exist in fertility clinics. Does that mean he might draw a line at the creation of embryos for the purpose of research? That's unclear, but it would be a positive step if his comment means he will decide, rather than leaving to scientists, the question of whether to limit the research to embryos already slated for destruction.

You would not have known from the nearly hour-long news conference that Mr. Obama is commander in chief at a time when U.S. forces are engaged in two wars. He did not mention them, except to refer to veterans coming home, and, surprisingly, no one asked, even though his administration is nearing the end of a review of its strategy in Afghanistan. The questions reflected, perhaps, a country understandably preoccupied with its own problems; the world isn't likely to indulge that inattention for long.

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