Analysis: Obama budget plan reveals vastly diminished ambitions

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 Writers
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 12:46 AM

President Obama's new budget plan was quickly dismissed Monday by Republican leaders, but the document serves as a measure of his presidency - revealing vastly diminished ambitions and practical political calculations.

Two years ago, the popular new president had Democratic majorities in Congress as he released a sweeping budget plan that introduced a New Deal sequel with dramatic proposals on health care, energy and the economy and a full embrace of government's central role.

The Obama of 2011, as demonstrated by Monday's budget rollout, seems resigned to operating in a far more constrained fashion as he plunges into policy combat for the first time with the GOP's House majority.

In declining to embrace the most difficult ideas proposed by his bipartisan deficit commission, such as cutting Social Security benefits, eliminating a home mortgage tax deduction or making structural changes to the tax code, the president deferred tough decisions that many in both parties say are necessary to fix the country's fiscal problems.

That apparent tentativeness suggests the man who once said he would rather be a good one-term president than a mediocre two-termer is, in fact, very interested in winning that second term.

"There is a hopeful interpretation of this strategy: The administration really wants to be involved in those conversations but doesn't believe that the ground has been adequately prepared for them," said William Galston, a former Clinton White House policy adviser who is a Brookings Institution scholar, writing on his blog Monday. "And there is a less hopeful interpretation - namely, that the administration doesn't want those talks to begin in earnest until after the 2012 presidential election."

Obama's budget appears to outline a broad fiscal platform for his reelection campaign that matches public opinion. Polls have shown that Americans see government spending and deficits as top-tier concerns - but support falls off substantially for cuts to specific entitlement programs and aid for the poor.

The president isn't above a bit of political theater. His proposals to cut summer school Pell grants and reduce funding to help the poor pay for heating oil allow him to portray himself as a hawk willing to rein in government spending and stand up to liberals in his base. Yet Obama knows these popular programs have powerful protectors in the Democratic Senate who are likely to save them from reductions.

Obama pledged to trim the deficit by $1 trillion over the next decade, raising taxes on upper income households and closing special-interest loopholes. In doing so, he hopes to force the GOP - which has said it wants to cut even deeper - to take the lead in identifying which popular programs will come under the knife.

On Monday, Republicans accused Obama of using "gimmicks" and failing to step up to the challenge. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) delivered a speech calling Obama's budget plan "unserious."

White House allies argued that, given the nature of politics today, the president would be foolish to expect a genuine policy debate if he were to lay out ideas as controversial and provocative as his deficit commission suggested.

"Floating proposals that swiftly get blown up as politicians jockey for political advantage does not advance the cause of fiscal responsibility," said Robert Greenstein, executive director of the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

Greenstein said administration officials recognize that the budget proposal "does not go nearly far enough to keep the debt stabilized in later decades." But he pointed to language in the document that invites discussions with the GOP on issues such as Social Security.

McConnell has signaled a willingness to examine programs such as Social Security and Medicare, and he and Obama could reach an agreement like they did in December on tax cuts and unemployment benefits. Senior GOP Capitol Hill aides, however, waved off a propsal to set aside hundreds of billions of dollars for transportation as a "gimmick."

Administration officials dispute that Obama's agenda is anything but ambitious. They say the president in recent weeks has spelled out a major rhetorical goal of "winning the future."

Despite Obama's efforts in recent days to court GOP lawmakers with private lunches and even a special home-brewed ale, Republicans clearly intend to double down in their opposition to his agenda. House leaders are planning extensive oversight hearings on Obama's signature health-care overhaul and his use of federal regulations to impose carbon emission restrictions. The budget debate will draw even sharper contrasts between the governing philosophies of Obama and the Republicans - a confrontation both sides appear eager to have.

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