In third year, Obama proposes a more modest course

President Barack Obama is unveiling his $3.73 trillion spending plan that is certain to ignite a political battle with Republicans who say the proposed budget is too timid about reducing the spiraling U.S. Debt. (Feb. 14)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 14, 2011; 11:55 AM

In his first two years in office, President Obama signed into law major overhauls of the health care, college loan and financial regulatory systems, along with a nearly $800 billion bill to spur economic growth. He unsuccessfully pushed for comprehensive bills to change America's energy and immigration laws.

But at least for now, the big legislative presidency is over. The proposals Obama and his team unveiled in his State of the Union address last month and the 2012 budget Monday show a more modest, incremental approach.

Even as the administration said it wants to reduce the deficit by more than $1 trillion over the next 10 years, it declined to propose major changes to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, which combined account for more than 40 percent of federal spending. And the proposed increases in funding for education, science and research, while significant, don't match the ambition of the policies Obama pursued in his first two years in office.

"The president rightly saw that with large Democratic majorities in Congress in his first two years, that was a unique opportunity to push an expansive congressional agenda," said Neera Tanden, a former Obama adviser who is now chief operating officer for the Washington-based think tank Center for American Progress. "Today, he faces a hostile House of Representatives that is the face of the 'Party of No' on his agenda. Therefore, his budget proposals are more targeted, and he will likely be more reliant on his powers as CEO of the federal government."

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, telling a crowd of Republicans on Saturday in his home state: "The legislative agenda of Barack Obama is over."

Administration officials reject McConnell's view. Jacob Lew, head of the Office of Budget and Management, said Sunday in an interview on CNN that the administration's deficit reduction goals are a " big idea." And as he touted a series of incremental reforms in education and innovation over the past few weeks, Obama has articulated a major rhetorical goal: "winning the future."

But at least for now, Obama has not laid out a major legislative proposal that would occupy weeks or months of time on Capitol Hill, and it's not clear whether he will. His proposals to reduce spending are in part to preempt congressional Republicans, who are calling for much larger cuts.

The president also is on the defensive on health care, as White House advisers are looking for new ways to build public support for the law as it comes under criticism from conservatives and federal courts.

Republicans in Congress have said even on issues where the parties have broad agreement, such as education, they are unlikely to sign onto 1,000-plus-page bills like last year's health-care reform. And the parties simply disagree on a host of major issues. Many of Obama's previous proposals, such as making it easier for illegal immigrants to become citizens, would be dead on arrival in the current GOP-controlled House.

Obama, of course, has nearly two years before he stands for reelection, and his State of the Union and budget are not the only place to announce major legislation. McConnell has signaled a willingness to examine programs such as Social Security and Medicare, and he and Obama could still reach some kind of agreement as they did in December on tax cuts and unemployment benefits.

"I could imagine the White House saying, 'You know, given the new crew [of House Republicans] that has come to town filled with zeal, we're going to have to play rope and dope for a while.' If [the White House] made big proposals early in 2011, they will be dead on arrival," said William Galston, who was a domestic policy adviser for President Bill Clinton."When the new Republican majority has punched itself, they might have more success."

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