Obama's budget -- is he willing to fight for his priorities?

President Obama at Georgetown University yesterday.
President Obama at Georgetown University yesterday. (By Alex Wong Via Bloomberg News)
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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

When will President Obama fight, and when will he fold? That's not entirely clear -- and I'm beginning to worry that there may be a little too much presidential inclination to crumple. For all the chest-thumping about making hard choices and taking on entrenched interests, there has been disturbingly little evidence of the new president's willingness to do that when it discomfits his allies.

"Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed," Obama proclaimed in his inaugural address.

Well, not exactly. Look at the fate of various proposals in the Obama budget, and the question that arises is not Walter Mondale's famous "Where's the beef?" It's "Where's the backbone?"

Granted, it's early -- too early to know whether this anxiety is justified. No president gets everything he proposes, in the budget or elsewhere. Picking battles is part of the art of presidential politics.

Just ask Jimmy Carter, who picked the wrong one with Congress, early on, over lawmakers' cherished water projects -- and then blinked on a veto. "That convinced people that he was not willing to stick to tough positions," Carter adviser Stuart Eizenstat recalled in a 1982 oral history.

But, if, as Machiavelli advised, it is better for a leader to be feared than loved, it's fair to ask whether Obama has been scary enough. Leave aside Republicans -- among Democrats in Congress, who's afraid of Barack Obama?

-- Item: Obama proposed ending automatic subsidy payments for farmers taking in more than $500,000 a year and capping payments at $250,000 -- along the lines of a failed Bush administration foray.

"More than dead on arrival," pronounced Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee -- and so it seems to be, with nary a peep from the president. Neither the House nor Senate budget outlines include any limits on farm subsidies.

-- Item: Obama proposed ending the lucrative program of federal subsidies for private banks making student loans, saving nearly $100 billion over the next decade by having the government make loans directly -- much as the Clinton administration had attempted years before.

Result: The Senate version of the budget resolution pointedly noted the chamber's backing for "a competitive student-loan program . . . with a comprehensive choice of loan products and services." The House version urged options "that will maintain a role for [bank] lenders." In other words, don't count out the banks anytime soon.

-- Item: Obama didn't even get around to proposing a change that would allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to bill private insurers, in the case of veterans who have such coverage, for service-related injuries. After an outcry from veterans groups, a slap-down from lawmakers and a stormy meeting between veterans and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, the administration backed down.

I could go on. The worthy notion of limiting tax deductions for the wealthiest Americans? Aired and, at least for now, dropped. The idea of a commission to deal with Social Security? Not even aired. The president wants to keep the estate tax at its current level, with a generous $7 million-a-couple exemption; that wasn't good enough for some Senate Democrats, who defied him by endorsing a bigger gift to the wealthy.

And one of the biggest ideas -- enacting a cap-and-trade system to deal with climate change -- is nowhere to be found in the budget blueprint.

So forgive me if I listened to Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week outline a series of smart and sensible changes in defense spending and thought, "Good luck with that." Parts for the F-22 fighter jet that Gates wants to stop buying are manufactured in 44 states. Is the president really going to take on this battle?

Obama advisers argue that both houses' budget resolutions hew closely to the president's plan. As budget chief Peter Orszag put it, "The resolutions may not be identical twins to what the president submitted, but they are certainly brothers that look an awful lot alike."

More important, aides say, the final product is likely to provide for passage of health reform by a majority vote if the Senate is gridlocked this fall. That could pave the way for a major victory -- enough to erase memories of compromises and capitulations.

In the weeks ahead, the challenge for the president is to avoid ceding so much that he undermines his own strength. This is not easy to calibrate. Machiavelli's prince, after all, didn't have to deal with committee chairs.


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