President Obama has been hit hard from Progressives about the budget proposal he sent to Congress this week. That's because many of Obama's highlighted cuts have been to categories of programs that Progressives (and Obama) hold dear -- community block grants, student aid, and energy assistance to poor families.
Obama admits it -- no, he does more than that -- he highlights it -- right upfront in his Budget Overview. Then he goes even a step further, bragging about these "unkind" cuts in all his speeches this week.
Progressives are up in arms, going so far as to say that Obama is betraying his roots as a community organizer: Not only did we have to deal with an extension of the Bush tax cuts for the richest Americans, but now this! Obama, are you turning into a Wall Street crony, a conservative in donkey's clothes, a middling politician more concerned with winning the next election, than doing right by his country?
Progressives need to take a chill pill. The truth is that the president's budget proposal is more strategy than substance. Members of his administration are saying as much behind the scenes. And his strategy may be just the thing to draw out Republicans and expose them for what they really believe about fiscal spending.
The federal budget process is long and involved. What the president's budget looks like today bears little to no resemblance to what evolves as the fiscal year opens in October. That's because the budget must be written, amended, passed in dozens of committees and subcommittees, voted on by both the House and the Senate and likely returned to those same committees for more amendments and so on. It will be debated and wrangled over behind doors, in endless hearings and thrashed over in 24-hour news cycles. And what emerges will be a hodgepodge of ideas and compromises. Sometimes (like in 2011) the budget will never get passed at all and we'll be left with a series of stopgap measures just to keep the machine moving.
The budget isn't so much a thing as it is a process. As such, the president knows that his "kick-off" proposal is more about more messaging than hard numbers.
So then... what's his message?
First, by cutting (and emphasizing that he did) programs that are near and dear to his community-organizer-heart, he's saying that deficit reduction is a shared sacrifice: Hey Republicans: If I can cut from the poorest Americans, certainly you can raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans. This is a message that he hopes he can sell to the American people.
Second, and more importantly, is what the budget doesn't do. It doesn't do a darn thing to Social Security (our second largest government expenditure). It doesn't deal with Medicare's exploding costs. And it does very little to rethink military spending. Together, these programs take up over half of the overall budget.
The president is not for lack of ideas on these issues. Rather, he's creating an idea vacuum, playing his cards close to his chest, and trying to draw out the enemy.
The Republicans gained ground in the midterm elections by promising to slice a bloated government. But it has been months since that win and not one of them has offered any detail as to how.
Now it's time to put their cards on the table. By doing little, the president is baiting Republicans: If this isn't enough -- then what is and how? He's making them pony up some real policy programs. Want to battle the seniors over Medicare and Social Security? Want to take it on the chin to reduce defense? Want to try to balance the budget without a tax hike? Please, be my guest.
And what 's more he is doing it at a time when Republican leadership is less than united. The rogue element of the Tea Party is causing headaches for House Speaker John Boehner, who has already seen three of his Republican-backed bills go down this month thanks to the agitators.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says the Republicans will provide their budget ideas -- and soon. Given Obama's move (or lack thereof), they don't really have a choice. It's time for Republicans to live up to their rhetoric and show America what they really have in mind. Then the very smart Mr. Obama can operate behind the scenes to get America the budget they deserve.