President Obama's 2012 Budget Gamble

Liberals have gotten used to the president selling out. Eric Alterman on why the new White House budget may be smart politics, but once again lets the right define the debate.

The new White House budget may be smart politics, but once again lets the right define the debate.

Conservatives have become so successful at determining the contours of the debate over tax cuts and spending that it has become possible for President Obama to simultaneously screw his own side and still give conservative fits—or at least pretend fits—that work just as well for the purpose of daily press coverage.

Obama’s $3.7 billion budget proposes $1.1 trillion in savings over the next decade. Like a responsible Republican who is beholden primarily, but not exclusively, to the wealthy, the mix is one-third tax increases, and two-thirds spending cuts, almost all of which come from the non-military part of the budget. But the words “responsible” and “Republican” are no longer typeable together except in moods of mockery, or at least wistfulness. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) issued a statement insisting the budget would “push us over the edge into generational debt," adding that it was up to Congress now to "save our nation from the coming fiscal crisis." Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) said much the same thing, complaining the budget plan would "not get the debt or deficit under control." This was just hours before, as Steven Benen pointed out, both men introduced yet another measure designed to further lower taxes on the very rich, because, after all, how to close the budget gap without giving away hundreds of billions to rich folk?

Whether liberals wish to defend Obama or give up on him pretty much depends on whether they have already decided to give up or keep defending him. It’s the same argument as always, which is “yes it stinks, but have you seen what those other guys want?” True, but other guys always manage to get more of what they want in the end. For instance, Obama proposes to cut oil and gas tax incentives: by $46 billion over 10 years and use that money for research and development into greener and more efficient means of energy production. Atlantic Monthly writers suggest this should “ please progressives.” But where in the document does Obama explain how he is going to get one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington to lie down and die for the sake of plowing the money back into research and development support? And even if they did—which, I repeat, IS NOT GOING TO HAPPEN—a measly $4 billion a year is nowhere near enough to make clean energy available the quantities needed to prevent dangerous climate chaos from taking place.

Obama also accepts Defense Secretary Robert Gates' proposed $78 billion in defense cuts and wants to use that money to invest in a $50 billion infrastructure "bank" for improved transportation. Again, yes, but $78 billion over a 10-year period is a rounding error, given the size of the military budget, which is so large the Pentagon insists it is literally un-auditable, despite myriad congressional mandates to do so. As Ezra Klein points out, compared with the $400 billion Obama plans “to cut from domestic discretionary spending—that's education, income security, food safety, environmental protection, etc.—over the next 10 years,” an allocation that turns out to be barely half the size of the military's budget is yet another bum deal for liberals: a forfeit before both teams even take the field.

For liberals the argument is the same as always, which is “yes it stinks, but have you seen what those other guys want?”

Yes, it could surely be much worse, and perhaps it will be. Bob Greenstein of the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities makes the case for what in Washington is considered “adulthood.” He approves of the “expansions in refundable tax credits for the working poor, major expansion of student financial aid for low-income students so that more of them can go to and complete college, and of course, major health-care reform that will extend coverage to 32 million uninsured people,” and the kicker: “Obama's spending request looks even better when you consider what the Republicans would do if left to their own devices.” And yes, politically, it's quite savvy. Tea Party types forced their leaders in the House to demand $100 billion in cuts, rather than the $35 billion or so they had originally planned. That will force a bunch of congressmen to vote against a whole host of popular programs, including food inspection, home heating assistance and aid to education—which could cost some of them their seats in 2012. Americans, after all, are awfully fond of spending cuts except when the spending affects them directly. (Just try, for instance, to eliminate the mortgage deduction…).

11 Budget GripesBill Clinton's ability to box Gingrich’s Republicans into a politically untenable “throw the widows and the orphans to the wolves” position was predicated, we should all recall, on his willingness to embrace, at least in theory, their demand for a balanced budget over a definable (but never actually reachable) period of time. Obama is taking the same tack. By agreeing to a whole host of Republican-inspired “fiscal austerity” measures, he hopes to be able to strengthen the programs he really cares about, particularly investment in infrastructure, broadband, and education for the middle and lower-middle classes. It’s a gamble that could work, particularly given the favorable reception his 2011 State of the Union speech enjoyed, which made exactly this case in the wake of the November 2010 “ shellacking” the Democrats earned themselves.

What’s the alternative? A full-throated rejection of the conventional wisdom that puts deficit-reduction at the top of the agenda at a moment when the jobs crisis remains as recalcitrant as ever and the base is yearning for some of that old-time Rooseveltian religion.

But if you expected that, well, you haven’t been paying attention. That fellow played some mean ball back in 2007-2008, but retired from the court with a swish on Election Day.

Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and media columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama.