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Axelrod: We're Gonna Have a Good 'Ol Fashioned Budget Battle

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No, that headline is not a quote from White House political adviser David Axelrod during Wednesday's blogger roundtable, which I was fortunate to attend.

But you tell me how else to interpret this:

DAVID AXELROD: Well, we have an obligation to put a budget forward, and we're going to put a budget forward, and that budget is going to reflect the priorities that the President spoke to last night.

It's going to be a tough budget in terms of the kind of the decisions we have to make about what we can afford and what we can't afford. But it's going to reflect the priorities that he spoke to.

And presumably Congress is going to then turn their cards over and say how they would do it differently. And we can have a discussion, the American people can participate in that discussion, as to the priorities...

... If, in fact, the idea is to cut education by 20 or 30 or 40 percent, that's not a growth strategy. If the idea is to not move forward on innovation and research and development, not to move forward on energy, that's not a growth strategy.

So I expect this debate to become engaged pretty quickly as we introduce our budget and as they respond to it, and hopefully present us with theirs.

Sounds like a good ol' fashioned budget battle to me.

And I mean ol' fashioned. It's a quaint concept: two sides putting together actual budgets, scored by an objective independent agency, put before the public to debate whose priorities are best.

The White House is now trying to make sure there is a Republican budget to have a battle with. By going first with a detailed budget, the White House makes it harder for House Republicans -- who have been crowing about their fiscal seriousness -- to duck without losing credibility.

Assuming the smoking-out plan works, the jury is still out whether the White House make this a real debate about two competing visions for America, and not become bogged down into the numerical morass of a wonk-off, where it can be easily supplanted by the latest ephemeral outrage.

How might the White House crystallize the debate?

Part of the strategy would be a fundamental contrast between the president investing in key areas to create jobs and spark innovation, and the Republicans literally investing in nothing at all. We know that when the president has an unfettered bully pulpit, such as in the State of the Union, the public strongly backs the investment vision.

The second part may be to slam House Republicans for a lack of seriousness regarding deficit reduction. As National Economic Council Deputy Director Brian Deese said at the roundtable:

BRIAN DEESE: If you look at the combined impact of extending permanently the Bush high-income tax cuts, repealing health reform, and what some Republicans have suggested in terms of cuts, that's a deficit-increase strategy.

As you can see, the White House does not appear to be giving up on either ending the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy, or the notion that health reform is the ultimate deficit reduction strategy.

The third part is the part that will give many progressives pause: touting the president's willingness to cut spending overall even while boosting investment.

The politics make some sense on paper -- much of the public wants to see both spending cuts and public investments. The president will offer both, the Republicans will offer only one.

But policy-wise, cuts in discretionary spending -- a mere slice of the overall budget -- to meet an arbitrary "freeze" target don't make sense. (Health reform is the ultimate deficit reduction, and the president has already embarked on that path. Unfortunately, much of the public doesn't believe it, apparently prompting the White House to make other gestures.)

And the political cost, depending on where those cuts fall, may be little enthusiasm among progressives to help the president with the rest of the budget battle.

Progressives should find a way to push dual political objectives:

Push The Limits Of Debate: We can show an alternate path to deficit reduction that does not require any weakening of the social safety net or suffocation of investments for the future. The hard work has already been done with the Citizens' Commission and other progressive deficit reduction proposals.

Amplify The Contrast: And we can amplify the contrast between the president's budget and the Republican vision: jobs versus no jobs, honest budgeting versus deficit hypocrisy, the future versus the past -- literally.

We shouldn't let the need to show our own path to deficit reduction interfere with the need to win the headline battle between the president and House conservatives over the fundamental question of the importance of public investment to create jobs and revitalize America's economic foundation.

Because if we can't win that battle, there's no way we can win the war.

Originally posted at OurFuture.org

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