The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama’s budget and the ‘coalition of the ascendant’

Placeholder while article actions load

Perhaps you've heard that the federal government spends $7 on the elderly for every $1 it spends on kids. It's true! Here's a graph:

President Obama's budget won't radically change that ratio. But it does push against it. The budget cuts $130 billion from Social Security benefits (some of which, it should be said, will hit children). It cuts $400 billion from Medicare. It raises taxes on wealthier Americans -- who also tend to be older Americans -- by $600 billion.

Meanwhile, it expands spending on pre-K, on infrastructure and on tax credits for hiring -- all policies that disproportionately benefit younger Americans.

Perhaps this is just Willie Sutton's law in action. Medicare, Social Security and rich people are where quite a bit of the money is, so of course that's where Obama's budget focuses. Moreover, the non-social insurance part of the budget -- discretionary spending -- got cut by more than a trillion dollars in 2011. Cutting entitlements and raising taxes are really all that's left.

Ron Brownstein sees it differently. Medicare, Social Security and rich people, he notes, also happen to be where Obama's coalition isn't. Mitt Romney won 56 percent of voters over age 65 and 54 percent of voters making more than $100,000 a year.

The budget, Brownstein writes, "is about Obama aligning the Democratic agenda with the priorities of the 'coalition of the ascendant' — minorities, the millennial generation, and college-educated whites, especially women — that powered his 2008 and 2012 victories." The political capital Obama is spending on gun control, immigration reform and gay marriage are also explained by the centrality of these voters to the Democratic Party's prospects.

"The keening on the left" over the Social Security cuts, Brownstein says, "suggests that large portions of the Democratic base still don’t understand the political and economic dynamics of the party’s changing electoral coalition."

I'm typically skeptical of this kind of coalition determinism. But then David Axelrod, who used to serve as Obama's chief strategist, tweeted this:

Political parties have a funny way of aligning their agendas with their coalitions, even if they don't quite realize that's what they're doing.

Republicans, for instance, believe they're the party that makes the tough choices on Medicare. They've even put forward a premium-support proposal that would voucherize the program -- the very definition of a tough, unpopular reform to Medicare. But they also rely heavily on votes from the elderly. And so, during the election, Romney ran to Obama's left on Medicare, promising to reverse the cuts from Obamacare and keep Medicare exactly the same for everyone over age 55. Remember Romney's Medicare whiteboard?

Premium support would begin in 2023 -- two years after Romney's second term ended. Republican policy wonks told themselves that this was all part of the plan. Sure, it looked as though Romney was reversing real cuts now in return for reforms that would kick in only after his presidency finished. And sure, that didn't sound like the most reliable trade. But that was the genius of it! That way seniors wouldn't kill the plan!

So even as the party believed itself wholly committed to Medicare cuts, it convinced itself to embrace a political strategy in which its near-term agenda became opposition to Medicare cuts, which was, coincidentally, exactly what its base of older Americans wanted. Neat how that worked out.

Is a similar dynamic happening among Democrats? I'm not totally convinced. One reason you see a focus on entitlement cuts in the president's latest budget is that the president has already signed more than a trillion dollars in discretionary spending cuts into law -- and that's where most of the spending that benefits the young resides. In total, Obama's budget sees Medicare and Social Security spending rising as a percentage of GDP, while discretionary spending is falling.

Still, Brownstein raises a good point. How long will a Democratic Party that's been abandoned by elderly voters and is increasingly reliant on younger voters see the protection of Social Security and Medicare as a primary political goal? In his Friday column, David Brooks mused about a deal in which the GOP offered Obama his investment priorities, like universal pre-K and infrastructure, in return for entitlement cuts without tax increases. The conventional wisdom, perhaps, is that Democrats would swiftly reject such a deal. But from the perspective of their emerging electoral coalition, it would make a lot of sense.