Left, Right, and Center: A budget analysis roundup

A budget worth shellacking or perfect politics?

We’ve all had a day or so to chew over President Obama’s proposed 2012 budget—a $3.7 trillion plan that with a five-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending, “deep” cuts, tax hikes, new fees, and much else, would supposedly bring next year’s deficit down to $1.1 trillion from this year’s $1.7 trillion.

So what are the pundits spitting out?

As you would expect, the right is not particularly pleased (it’s still the fourth trillion dollar-plus budget in a row, after all). And while Michael Shear at the Times Caucus blog is reporting that the president has so far escaped a backlash from the “professional left,” I’m not so convinced that that political flank is all clapping-hands and bitten-tongues.

There have been cautious kudos in some left-leaning corners, but some very incautious thumpings in others. They just haven’t come quite as we may have expected. Rather than railing against the easy-target reductions in programs like the one which supplies heating assistance to low-income earners, or cuts in Pell Grants, the “professional left” is picking apart the budget to expose its broader inconsistencies, even as some among them acknowledge the political game being played with its release.

The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan, for instance—who doesn’t fit too neatly into that vague Gibbs-coined demographic—came out firing yesterday. In a blog post titled, “Obama To The Next Generation: Screw You, Suckers,” Sullivan writes that while the president is arguing that discretionary spending on infrastructure, education, broadband, and other investment-focused areas is the kind of spending that creates wealth, it is also the only kind of spending he proposes to cut. What happened to seriously taking entitlements into account? “He convened a deficit commission in order to throw it in the trash.”

Sullivan writes:

In this budget, in his refusal to do anything concrete to tackle the looming entitlement debt, in his failure to address the generational injustice, in his blithe indifference to the increasing danger of default, he has betrayed those of us who took him to be a serious president prepared to put the good of the country before his short term political interests. Like his State of the Union, this budget is good short term politics but such a massive pile of fiscal bullshit it makes it perfectly clear that Obama is kicking this vital issue down the road.

To all those under 30 who worked so hard to get this man elected, know this: he just screwed you over.

At The Daily Beast, Kabuki Democracy author Eric Alterman writes that “Whether liberals wish to defend Obama or give up on him pretty much depends on whether they have already decided to give up or keep defending him. It’s the same argument as always, which is ‘yes it stinks, but have you seen what those other guys want?’” Sure, the president is proposing cuts to industry-favored oil and gas tax incentives that would tickle progressives, but they won’t actually happen—and if they do, and the money is put into research and development instead, the figures are inadequate anyway. What about those Pentagon reductions? Too small: “another bum deal for liberals.”

Comparing Obama’s politicking to President Clinton’s previous move to the center, Alterman lands on the same Obama-as-disappointment theme as Sullivan.

By agreeing to a whole host of Republican-inspired “fiscal austerity” measures, he hopes to be able to strengthen the programs he really cares about, particularly investment in infrastructure, broadband, and education for the middle and lower-middle classes. It’s a gamble that could work, particularly given the favorable reception his 2011 State of the Union speech enjoyed, which made exactly this case in the wake of the November 2010 “shellacking” the Democrats earned themselves.

What’s the alternative? A full-throated rejection of the conventional wisdom that puts deficit-reduction at the top of the agenda at a moment when the jobs crisis remains as recalcitrant as ever and the base is yearning for some of that old-time Rooseveltian religion.

But if you expected that, well, you haven’t been paying attention. That fellow played some mean ball back in 2007-2008, but retired from the court with a swish on Election Day.

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman at the Times rather sensibly declares, “The Obama budget isn’t going to happen, so in a sense it’s irrelevant.” Then, exploring the rhetorical implications of this budget, Krugman says Obama “has effectively given up on the idea that the government can do anything to create jobs in a depressed economy. In effect, although without saying so explicitly, the Obama administration has accepted the Republican claim that stimulus failed, and should never be tried again.” Of course, if you’ve been reading Krugman on the stimulus, you might expect what follows:

What’s extraordinary about all this is that stimulus can’t have failed, because it never happened. Once you take state and local cutbacks into account, there was no surge of government spending.

Krugman provides a chart to demonstrate his point: a line showing “Government Current Expenditures” dips deeply in the 2008-2009 recession period. He concludes that while the non-starter budget seems an admission that the stimulus didn’t work, in actual fact, “Fiscal policy didn’t fail; it wasn’t tried.”

Washington Post wunderkind blogger Ezra Klein also steps back from the details of the twenty-pound budget to look at it as a political tool or statement in a roundup of wonk reactions published painfully early this morning. The budget is a potential first chess move in doing unpopular entitlement reform, argues Klein, without necessarily getting the unwanted credit. Perhaps he’s onto something. Discussing the budget’s missing entitlement reforms in a presser today, Obama said the recommendations of his deficit commission had not been shelved, but “still provides a framework for a conversation”—a conversation of which the budget is a part, but not the conclusion. And Jacob Lew, the president’s budget director, has said that addressing mandatory programs would best be handled in closed-door discussions.

Klein writes:

…it’s worth remembering that this is the White House’s opening bid in a negotiation that’s just getting started. They have made a decision—perhaps savvy, perhaps not—to leave it to the Republicans to take the first step on entitlements and tax reform. The Republicans, due to their criticism of this budget, now have to offer something more far-reaching in their proposal. If they come up with a plan people like and some votes for it, the White House can join with them in negotiations and eventually sign onto a grand compromise. This budget will be largely forgotten. If they come up with a plan people hate that clearly can’t get the votes, the White House can attempt a replay of the mid-1990s and hammer them with it.

This budget doesn’t lead on long-term deficit reduction. But that’s not necessarily because the White House is uninterested in that discussion. Note the section laying out the White House’s interest and position on Social Security reform. Rather, they’re keeping their options open until Congress makes the first move.

At The New Republic, Jonathan Chait sees the budget in political terms as well. For Chait, the budget is a demonstration that the White House is trying to change the idea, seemingly lodged deep in the American mind, that government is riddled with waste and bureaucracy. Chait says it’s meant to be a conversation-changer. He writes:

The message, sometimes made explicit, is that the budget actually does not contain a lot of waste. It’s filled with programs that have survived many previous rounds of belt-tightening for a reason. If you want to cut the budget, you have to cut useful and necessary things…. He’s explaining to the public that the free-ride view of budget cutting —we can cut our way out of the deficit by eliminating waste and spending that only benefits foreigners—is wrong.

Naturally, those on the right don’t see the politics as being so clever, or so benign. But they do see the politics. Leaping off of Sullivan’s blog post—“I suppose Sullivan was one of the last to figure this out”—blog Power Line concludes, Obama “is playing a game of chicken.”

He puts forward a series of proposals that he knows are more or less insane; but he also believes that Republicans will come to his rescue. They, not being wholly irresponsible, will come up with plans to reform entitlements—like, for example, the Ryan Roadmap. Ultimately, some combination of those plans will be implemented because the alternative is the collapse, not just of the government of the United States, but of the country itself. But Obama thinks the GOP’s reforms will be unpopular, and he will be able to demagogue them, thus having his cake and eating it too. Is that leadership? Of course not. But it is the very essence of Barack Obama.

Political maneuvers aside, the right has much to say about the details of the 2012 budget proposal. The primary complaint is the expected one—as summed up by David Caller columnist David Bossie in his budget reaction: “Red ink continues to be spilled at record rates with no end in sight and yet President Obama continues to ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room—our climbing $14 trillion national debt.” It doesn’t sound too different than some complaints from the left, or the center, for that matter.

But for a buoyant and very readable teardown of the president’s budget, you’d be hard-pressed to beat this morning’s editorial posted at The National Review. “Obama’s budget is bad—very bad,” write the unsigned authors. Describing the document as filled with “wishful thinking,” the Review explains the problem with tax hikes on business. You see reader, business and employees are connected. “When Uncle Sam reaches deeper into Big Business’s pocket, his hand passes straight through and into the pockets of consumers, who will pay higher prices at the filling station, in their utility bills, and at the grocery store.”

And while some liberals decry the reductions at the Pentagon as too small, the Review is having none of it.

While the president is bailing out mortgage deadbeats and playing sandbox energy tycoon, his budget shortchanges one of the few areas of spending that represent an inarguable federal responsibility: national defense. Hacking away at the military while U.S. troops are at war in Afghanistan and Iraq—and while the Middle East is undergoing historic turmoil and China grows ambitious—is problematic on its own. Doing so to free up money for spending on projects that are far beyond federal responsibility and far outside of federal expertise is asinine.

It will be interesting to see how far this “sandbox energy tycoon” can push his budget, and just how much it will change behind closed doors.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , , ,