THE BLOG

Whistling in the Dark

02/14/2012 02:31 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2012

"If you can't run against big banks and big oil, it must not be America." So spoke the famous House Speaker Sam Rayburn more than 60 years ago.

"Social Security is the third rail of politics." Another Texan, Jim Baker, accurately intoned 30 years ago. Add Medicare, Medicaid, and veterans' retirement programs, and the Baker formulation is alive and well.

President Obama's Fiscal Year 2013 budget released yesterday morning reveals that the White House and its Chicago branch office have learned these hoary lessons well.

Critics contend that the Obama budget merely begins the presidential campaign and stands only as a political document. That criticism founders on the fact that all presidential budgets are political documents. For most of the past three decades, presidential budgets routinely get tagged as "Dead on Arrival." Obama's FY13 version faces the same fate.

Yet, as the culmination of themes developed by the White House these past three years, the FY13 budget reveals the contours of the ground on which the Obama campaign wishes to fight the presidential election: raise taxes on the rich and big oil; spend money on the programmatic equivalent of Apple Pie -- education, training, infrastructure; and, above all, don't mess with entitlements (as the jargon goes for Medicare, Medicaid, pensions, Social Security, and veterans health and pension programs).

Politically, the document follows well-traveled roads, then.

The Congressional Budget Office's budget and economic report hit the streets last week. The CBO analysis and the president's FY13 budget occupy different policy universes. Ironically, the Washington Post op-ed page yesterday morning starkly, if inadvertently, highlights those disparate universes. Robert Samuelson's analysis of Disability Insurance (a part of the Social Security system) concentrates on a policy headed for disaster.

Fred Hiatt focuses on the divide he discerns between "nostalgia liberals" and "accountability liberals" and how they react to the looming fiscal cliff. Hiatt's narrow focus on "liberals" is a political analysis of a sub-set of American voters and posits solutions within that sub-set. Voters won't feel threatened by those solutions. Samuelson broadens the debate at the same time he acknowledges that any attempts to fix this ruined policy will lead to political ruin. Hiatt emphasizes "feelings;" Samuelson emphasizes facts. As the book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, reminds us, feelings almost always dominate.

After all the political firefights cease, after all the rhetoric fades, the American people will have no deeper knowledge of what fiscal reality confronts them. The politics merely re-inforce cognitive dissonance that characterizes citizens now -- give me my benefits, cut my taxes, balance the budget.

President Obama's FY13 budget sadly strengthens that cognitive dissonance. Whistling in the dark hardly seems dramatic enough to sum up his budget.