02/16/2011 10:24 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Minimalist Budget

President Obama's new budget is a highly tactical exercise in fiscal minimalism. It proposes just enough spending cuts to be plausible, while putting off the critical work of tax and entitlement reform. Its unspoken premise seems to be: Given the ax-wielding frenzy that grips House Republicans, the best the White House can do now is to frame the fiscal debate on terms favorable to progressives.

The President's $3.7 trillion budget would trim federal deficits by just over $1 trillion over the next decade. To the chagrin of liberals, the budget proposes to reach this total through a formula of two-thirds spending cuts, one-third tax cuts, rather than a 50-50 split. Also, it limits military spending growth without cutting specific programs. Meanwhile, the blueprint freezes discretionary spending for five years, and cuts over 150 programs, for $25 billion in budget savings next year. In short, the toughest discipline falls on domestic spending, so expect howls of betrayal from the left.

For all that, however, the Obama proposal would still leave us with deficits over 3 percent of GDP in 2020, while doing nothing to brake the runaway growth of costs for Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, which account for 40 percent of the budget. These costs, propelled by soaring health care prices and demographics, and growing automatically each year, are what drive our nation's long-term debt crisis.

The new budget does stabilize the national debt, but at a level -- 77 percent of GDP -- that most economists believe is well above what's good for our fiscal health. It's getting panned by deficit hawks. "This budget fails to meet the Administration's own fiscal target, it fails to tackle the largest problem areas of the budget, and it fails to bring the debt down to an acceptable level," said Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Over the weekend, GOP leaders lambasted Obama for not embracing the much more robust and comprehensive recommendations of his own Fiscal Commission. Its plan would cut deficits by $4 trillion by 2020, make big reductions in tax expenditures, and trim future Social Security and Medicare benefits for the well-off. Bear in mind that, even as they criticize the President's fiscal pusillanimity, House Republicans have rejected the Fiscal Commission blueprint, oppose tax increases of any kind, and are engaged in an Alphonse-and-Gaston routine with the White House over who should go first on entitlement reform.

Nonetheless, the Commission's Democratic co-chairman, Erskine Bowles, also expressed disappointment that the President hasn't used its work as the point of departure for a serious push to restore fiscal stability in Washington. He accurately called the President's proposal "nowhere near where they will have to go to resolve our fiscal nightmare."

The administration apparently is calculating that its modest deficit-reduction proposal has several tactical advantages. First, it may better reflect the public's actual appetite for fiscal restraint. The same polls that show strong public support for reining in public deficits also find majorities opposed to major program cuts. Second, and relatedly, the White House wants to contrast its moderate approach to GOP austerity zealots, who have launched a single-minded jihad against government spending. Once the public tumbles to the implications of the GOP's demands for $100 billion in domestic program cuts now, Democrats reason, they will recoil and demand a more balanced approach that includes defense cuts and tax hikes.

That seems likely. Republicans have convinced themselves that most Americans share their goal of shrinking government by cutting off its credit card. "The country's biggest challenge, domestically speaking, no doubt about it, is a debt crisis," House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan said this weekend.

But progressives believe that Americans -- especially the independents and moderates who abandoned Democrats in the midterm election -- are even more concerned about the scarcity of good jobs and America's eroding competitiveness. More than fiscal stringency, they are looking to their leaders for a hopeful plan to jumpstart the stalled U.S. job machine.

The President's budget accordingly makes room for significant new public investments, especially in infrastructure, innovation, and education. He wants to spend $53 billion over the next six years on high speed rail, and invest $50 billion in capitalizing a National Infrastructure Bank. The GOP's knee-jerk dismissal of such strategic investments as just more government waste is wrong as a matter of economics, and it leaves conservatives without a credible theory for how they would rekindle economic growth.

So maybe Obama is right to stand back and give Republicans all the fiscal rope they need to hang themselves from the tree of uncompromising budget austerity. But his Fiscal Commission, which labored diligently and successfully to find some fiscal common ground between the parties, especially on scaling back tax expenditures, deserves better from him. And sooner rather than later, the President will have to step up and lead on entitlement reform, a national imperative that can no longer be safely deferred.

This item is cross-posted at Progressive Fix.