Concern Over Obama's Spending Plans May Cloud 2010 Election Prospects

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 14, 2009

After enjoying months of towering poll numbers, legislative victories and well-received foreign policy initiatives, the White House has become increasingly concerned that President Obama's spending plans, which would require $9 trillion in government borrowing over the next decade, could become a political liability that defines the 2010 midterm elections.

The concern was reflected in the aggressive response from administration officials to criticism that money from Obama's stimulus plan is arriving too slowly to help the languishing economy, as well as in the president's public endorsement of "pay as you go" legislation, which would require Congress to make room for new non-discretionary spending with equivalent cuts to other parts of the budget. Yesterday, Obama also outlined billions of dollars in savings that would be used to pay for his health-care reform proposal.

But there is evidence of growing public concern over his fiscal policies. As he traveled Thursday in Green Bay, Wis., Obama was greeted by demonstrators holding signs that said, "No socialism" and "Taxed Enough Yet?"

Republican leaders, who have been searching for a way to dent the president's popularity, are training their attacks on his economic policies as they look ahead to the 2010 midterm congressional elections. Their argument that Obama is spending recklessly, however, is complicated by the fact that the previous GOP administration's tax cuts, borrowing to finance wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and expansion of entitlement benefits remain the chief drivers behind the rising debt.

"The reckless fiscal policies of the past have left us in a very deep hole," Obama said last week. "And digging our way out of it will take time, patience and some tough choices."

But even some leaders in his own party are calling on the president to soon begin making those difficult choices, despite a fragile economy that remains in recession.

After inheriting a $1.3 trillion annual budget deficit upon taking office, Obama pushed through $787 billion in short-term spending and tax cuts designed to make up for retreating private-sector demand and to spark the economy. He also won approval for a 10-year budget that aspires to sharply reduce the deficit in its first years and takes on the rising cost of health care, which his advisers say is the single biggest cause of increasing public expenditures.

But Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said, "The second five years is where we're on a completely unsustainable course."

"People know we have an overall situation here that doesn't add up," he said.

Results from a Gallup survey released last week show that although more than six in 10 Americans approve of Obama's overall job performance, fewer than half say they approve of how he is handling the deficit and controlling federal spending. The poll also shows a decline from the previous month in the percentage of Americans who approve of Obama's handling of the economy, although a majority still does.

During a town hall forum in New Mexico last month, Obama acknowledged that the "long-term deficit and debt that we have accumulated is unsustainable." The statement followed several fiscal reform initiatives, including changes in defense procurement policy, that advisers say will save tens of billions of dollars a year.

Other measures have held a whiff of desperation. In April, he publicly instructed his Cabinet secretaries to find $100 million in savings, a fraction of the more than $3 trillion annual budget.

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