Obama budget sets strategy for fall campaign

President Obama’s budget, formally unveiled Monday to set federal spending priorities, also bolsters a goal of his party for the 2010 elections: Show voters that the president is trying to persuade Republicans to share responsibility for governing the country, but that Republicans are turning him away.

The budget plan invites Republicans to join him on a bipartisan commission to cut the deficit -- a concept that the GOP has backed in prior years. It includes tax cuts for small businesses long-championed by the GOP. It proposes a domestic spending freeze that infuriates many liberal Democrats.

Those olive branches were offered just days after Obama invited GOP cooperation in his State of the Union address and a televised give-and-take with House Republicans at a policy conference -- a remarkable shift in approach after a year of intense partisanship and the bruising loss of the Democratic-held Senate seat in Massachusetts. But those seemingly conciliatory gestures lay the ground work for Obama to thrust his party back onto the political offense: Democrats are gearing up to campaign against the GOP as the root of the budget problem and an obstacle to its solution.

“Congressional Republicans have talked about fiscal responsibility and reducing spending, so I hope they will take this opportunity to work with President Obama on this budget,” said Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine. “The country will be ill-served by a strategy of opposing the president no matter what he proposes.”

Republicans remain confident that Obama’s budget proposal is their best argument against his party’s dominance in Washington, knowing that it will be difficult for Democrats to pass off responsibility for the record federal debt when voters seem poised to turn against incumbents with a vengeance.

“The fundamentals are clear,” said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “This budget is more of the same: more spending, more taxes and more debt.”

Republicans are skeptical of Obama’s stabs at fiscal restraint, noting that congressional leaders are already balking. House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) spoke for many liberals when he immediately insisted that Obama’s proposed policy of freezing discretionary spending should not, as planned, exempt the Pentagon. But the Obama budget may not go far enough in restraining spending to satisfy more conservative Democrats.

One of the Democratic Party’s marquee Senate candidates in a swing state -- Robin Carnahan, who is running for an open seat in Missouri -- said Obama’s budget was too profligate.

“From where I stand here in Missouri, I’m disappointed in the president’s budget recommendation,” Carnahan said Monday. “Budgets are about setting priorities, and it’s time Washington started making fiscal discipline and tackling the long-term budget deficit higher priorities.”

One cornerstone of Democrats’ election-year budget argument will be backward-looking: Obama and fellow Democrats are ramping up efforts to demonstrate how much of the nation’s fiscal problems were on his doorstep when he arrived in the White House after eight years of GOP rule.

“There is a clear need to put the onus where it belongs,” said Democratic political consultant Mark Mellman. “It’s Republicans who have gotten us into this huge mess, and they have taken no responsibility for fixing it.”

But the budget, and Obama’s recent challenges to the GOP, are also about the discussion of what Washington should do next. Democratic strategists, including White House senior advisor David Axelrod, have argued that the coming elections should be a choice about the different directions the two parties would take the country, not a referendum on what Obama has done.

That aim may have been advanced in the televised forum in Baltimore on Friday, when House Republicans sharply disputed criticisms that they had not offered alternatives of their own. They pointed to the comprehensive fiscal plan offered by Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, senior Republican on the budget committee. Ryan’s proposal, among other things, would change Medicare for future retirees into a voucher program, giving recipients a set amount of money each year that could be used to buy insurance or medical services.

When asked about that plan at a briefing about Obama’s budget Monday, Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag described it as “an interesting plan.”

“There are many aspects of that that are worthy of further discussion and debate,” he said. “But it is a dramatically different approach in which much more risk is loaded onto individuals and in which the Medicare program in particular is dramatically changed from its current structure.”

The two parties seem prepared to pick a budget fight even on proposals ripe for consensus -- like efforts to establish a bipartisan commission to address long-term deficit problems. When the commission came to a vote in the Senate and nearly passed, seven Republican co-sponsors of the original idea voted against it. When the Senate voted on a “pay-as-you-go” budget rule requiring the cost of any new tax cut or spending increase to be offset -- Republicans voted in unison against it.

Republicans view Obama’s deficit-reduction measures with deep skepticism, noting that they come after a year of double-digit increases in federal spending after he took office.

Even his support of the bipartisan deficit commission was suspect, as Republicans noted that he endorsed the legislation after supporters had conceded they did not have the votes to pass it.

McConnell said he had talked to Obama about the idea right after he came to office and “could never get a commitment out of him.”

“In the meantime, we’ve seen a year now, in which we’ve been on a spending binge,” McConnell said Sunday on CNN. “Where was he a year ago when we were talking to him about it?”