The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump and Democratic candidates struggle to rally behind budget vision as 2020 election nears

White House releases 2021 budget on eve of New Hampshire primary.

President Trump arrives to deliver remarks at the White House Business Session With Our Nation’s Governors on Feb 10. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The White House released a budget plan on Monday that revealed the pressure President Trump faces to curb spending while protecting popular programs, constrained by his decision to significantly increase defense spending and largely wall off money for Medicare and Social Security.

At the same time, Democratic presidential candidates are far from united on the best alternative to Trump’s plan. They are battling over competing visions for how to use the federal budget to expand the economy and lift Americans up.

Trump’s budget would allocate a record $4.8 trillion in spending for the fiscal year that begins in October, and the White House said it would result in a $966 billion deficit because tax revenue continues to lag. But the deficit will probably be even higher than that, in part because Congress is expected to reject the White House’s call for major cuts to housing, education, environmental protection, foreign aid and other programs. That means spending could eclipse the White House’s proposal even more.

Although Democrats have not unified around an alternative budget, many of them have seized on the broad range of cuts Trump is pursuing nine months before the presidential election.

“The president of the United States thinks we’re suckers,” Pete Buttigieg, a former mayor of South Bend, Ind., said Monday. “We know, we know, there will be accountability for all those broken promises.”

One of the biggest reductions in the Trump budget would affect Medicaid, a health-care program for low-income Americans, which Trump seeks to cut by $920 billion over 10 years. It was one of several social safety net programs the White House targeted for major cuts, and one the Obama administration fought to expand.

Even with the proposed cuts, Trump’s decision to wall off Social Security, Medicare and the Defense Department from big reductions would keep the government’s fiscal picture largely out of balance. If all the proposals were enacted by Congress and the economy grew at a much faster clip than many economists say is possible, a gap between spending and revenue would continue for the next 15 years, the White House said. During the Obama administration, Republicans insisted that the deficit be eliminated within 10 years, but those calls have faded since Trump’s inauguration.

The budget plan came on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, at a time when Democratic candidates vying for the party’s nomination have been unable to unify behind an alternate vision.

Trump’s new budget proposal expected to show how far he has moved away from some 2016 campaign promises

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have called for major spending on health-care and education programs. Former vice president Joe Biden has warned Democrats not to embrace an agenda that calls for unrealistic social policy goals, and Buttigieg declared at a town hall event in Nashua, N.H., on Sunday that it was time to get serious about the rising deficit, even though “it’s not fashionable in progressive circles to talk too much about the debt.”

The dispute comes as the 2020 campaign shapes up to be a sprawling debate about the size and scope of government for Americans of all backgrounds and income levels. Trump’s budget offers Democratic candidates big targets, including major cuts to Medicaid, food stamps and domestic programs such as those involving education and environmental protection. Some Democrats, in turn, are proposing huge spending plans that Trump is likely to brand as “socialist,” as they wrestle with multiple contradictions of their own over how best to handle government spending.

Because the GOP under Trump has largely abandoned the focus on deficit reduction that was a central theme for Republicans during the Obama administration, some Democratic candidates see a vacuum to fill. Moderate members of the party want to seize the deficit-hawk mantle — as Buttigieg has sought to do — while the liberal wing wants to significantly expand government programs, which they can justify in part by pointing to Republicans’ abdication on the issue.

“Both parties are juggling whether to embrace their expensive priorities and build a dream government, or responsibly reduce the deficit but give up on some of their dreams,” said Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank.

Trump made no public appearance Monday to announce the final budget of his first term in office, titled “A Budget for America’s Future.” It is a $4.8 trillion spending plan that abandons past attempts to balance the budget over a decade, instead setting a 15-year target to meet that goal using rosy economic growth projections. In private comments, Trump has shown little interest in cutting spending, telling a private audience in January: “Who the hell cares about the budget? We’re going to have a country.”

Despite the president’s lack of public focus on the budget, the document is replete with indications of the politics of the moment.

Even as it seeks major cuts to Medicaid, the Environmental Protection Agency, education and housing programs, the budget preserves a handful of politically sensitive programs that in some cases have provoked uproar and prompted Trump to backpedal when he has tried to cut them in the past.

These include the Special Olympics and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative — a program important to Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, critical states in the 2020 election. Even as White House officials kept the Great Lakes fund steady, as it did for an ecosystem protection program in South Florida, similar programs in other, less politically important states are cut in the Trump budget.

In a move that would be welcome to voters in Nevada, an early-voting state, Trump’s budget also recommends spending money on finding an alternative to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository there.

But even some of Trump’s staunchest allies criticized his sharp cuts for domestic agencies, such as the Agriculture Department, which he is targeting for an 8 percent overall reduction. That was an indication that the budget will get a cold shoulder on Capitol Hill from the lawmakers of both parties who will be responsible for writing spending bills into law that will actually fund the government when fiscal 2021 begins on Oct. 1.

“I applaud the Administration for aiming to tackle the debt and deficit by addressing federal spending, but I do not support the disproportionate cuts to important agricultural programs,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said in a statement. “The cuts proposed today would save little but inflict severe pain in American agriculture.”

Democratic presidential candidates attacked Trump’s budget swiftly, reflecting how tax and spending proposals are likely to be flash points heading into November.

As Biden has tramped through New Hampshire, he has argued that Trump is morally and economically unfit. On Monday, he cited the president’s budget as further evidence. He contrasted Trump’s efforts to cut safety net programs, including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, with his experience Saturday handing out food to New Hampshire families in need.

“It’s the United States of America,” Biden said in Gilford, N.H., pausing between words for effect. “We’re standing there handing out bread and food. Some of the little kids couldn’t even pick the boxes up. … And this president of the United States, as I speak, is cutting SNAP, food stamps. What in God’s name is happening to us?”

Sanders, meanwhile, slammed the budget in a statement, calling it “a budget of, by and for the 1 percent. It reflects profoundly unethical priorities and shows that the president is — and it gives me no great pleasure to say this — a liar.” Sanders pointed to Trump’s promises to safeguard Medicare while the budget wrings out hundreds of millions of dollars in savings from the health-care program for older Americans, although the administration says it is aiming to enact cost-saving reforms, not cut benefits.

Even as several joined in their condemnation of Trump’s budget, Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg and other candidates including Sen. Amy Klobucher (Minn.) remained locked in heated debate among themselves about the role of government in American lives.

The leading Democratic presidential candidates have proposed between $5 trillion and $50 trillion in new federal spending, with Biden on one end of the spectrum, Sanders on the other, and most of the other candidates falling in between. All the Democratic candidates have said their plans would be paid for with new tax increases on individuals and corporations, although Sanders said his Green New Deal legislation would be paid for in part by new taxpayer revenue created by the economic growth generated by massive federal investment.

Buttigieg’s nod to reducing the deficit was denounced by many liberal economists, who pointed to historically low inflation as a reason to remain focused on spending priorities rather than deficit reduction. Stephanie Kelton, a former Sanders economist, wrote on Twitter that “cutting the deficit should NEVER be a policy goal.”

For all their disputes, Trump’s budget offered plenty of broad-brush distinctions between the president’s approach and Democrats’ plans.

While some Democrats are talking about forgiving student debt and debating whether to make college free, the Trump budget slashes education programs already in place and includes steep cuts to the student loan program — nearly $5 billion next year and more than $60 billion over five years.

The White House budget contains no proposals to address global warming, which has been a focus for all of the Democratic presidential candidates. Climate change barely gets a mention at all, although the budget proposes eliminating “several voluntary partnership programs related to energy and climate change” within the EPA.

On the U.S.-Mexico border wall, a point of contention between Republicans and Democrats that led to a 35-day partial government shutdown last winter, the budget proposes only $2 billion from the Department of Homeland Security, billions less than in previous years. But the budget also indicates ongoing plans for the administration to divert wall funding from the Pentagon, as it did after Trump declared a state of emergency in 2019. The White House says its current plan would allow it to build 1,000 miles of border wall.

Overall, the Trump administration proposes a $705.6 billion budget for national defense, up slightly from 2020. Sanders and Warren have said they want to cut the defense budget, with Sanders saying that “virtually every major defense contractor” has been found guilty of fraud. Asked by The Washington Post last year, former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, Biden and Buttigieg said they would not commit to cutting defense spending, although Buttigieg called for looking at “what we are prioritizing.”

Chelsea Janes, Laura Meckler, Paul Sonne, Cleve Wootson Jr., Lena H. Sun and Will Englund contributed to this report.