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Is Obama a Budget Hawk?

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As President-elect Obama outlines his plans for economic stimulus -- or economic "recovery" as the Times's Carl Hulse noted rather cheekily this morning -- he has been singing paeans to budget hawks concerned that profligate spending in the short term will produce, well, profligate spending in the long term. Politico found him "wooing" Blue Dog Democrats, who have periodically thrown a wrench in House-Senate negotiations about stimulus (er, recovery) and about other spending increases like the energy bill attached to the Wall St. bailout (er, rescue).

Rachel Maddow pointed out several nights ago that Obama's economic team is heavily influenced by "Rubinomics", the economic philosophy of the budget-conscious Clinton Treasury Secretary. And his selection of Peter Orszag as budget director ("a favorite of fiscal conservatives" but, let's not forget, also a health care whiz) is another sign of his commitment to budget austerity.

This push and pull between fiscal hawks and those more willing to spend is by no means a new debate. Certainly, most probably agree that trillion dollar bailouts and hundreds of billions of dollars in stimulus spending are not sustainable.

But Politico and others have been too quick to associate Obama with the budget hawks.

The president-elect seems to be focused on more than increases and decreases in spending, a framing conservatives and Blue Dogs use to describe just about all government programs. Instead, Obama seems intent on budget reform, rather than only creating "savings" from spending cuts. He seems interested in creating a budget that evaluates the usefulness of program outcomes in relation to their costs. This may seem obvious -- but for some time fiscal conservatives have painted any federal spending as profligate.

In Tuesday's press conference, Obama stated:

In these challenging times, when we're facing both rising deficits and a shrinking economy, budget reform is not an option. It's a necessity...[The Office of Management and Budget] will not only help design a budget and manage its implementation, but it's also going to make sure that our government -- your government -- is more efficient and more effective at serving the American people.

Obama's not just calling for budget cuts with a scalpel. Instead of evaluating government programs based on government revenue and expenditure alone, Obama seems to be (I hope) suggesting that his budget will consider the returns to investment created by this government spending.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into Obama's statements. But, as Matthew Berger pointed out with certain astonishment at Marc Ambinder's blog yesterday, Obama announced his budget director and deputy director at a press conference before he named his secretary of state.