As Congress begins picking through President Obama’s vast election-year budget, many Democratic incumbents and candidates seem to be finding something they love -- to campaign against.
A Democratic Senate candidate in Missouri denounced the budget’s sky-high deficit. A Florida Democrat whose congressional district includes the Kennedy Space Center hit the roof over NASA budget cuts. And a headline on the 2010 campaign website of Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) blares her opposition to Obama’s farm budget: “Blanche stands up for Arkansas farm families.”
Obama’s budget gives his fellow Democrats an unlikely campaign tool -- a catalog of ways to establish their distance from controversial aspects of his administration. The time-tested campaign tactic of politicians declaring their independence of their party leaders is particularly important for Democrats this year because being an insider is a political liability in an anti-incumbent year.
All that underscores a potential gap between Obama’s governing agenda and congressional Democrats’ political interests. Obama is asking them to look at the big picture on the budget, take on tough issues, and let the politics take care of themselves.
“I promise you, the answer is not to do nothing,” Obama told Senate Democrats on Wednesday. “We’ve got to finish the job on healthcare. We’ve got to finish the job on financial regulatory reform. We’ve got to finish the job, even though it’s hard.”
Since his State of the Union address last week, Obama has offered a spirited defense of his agenda, his feisty demeanor an implicit promise of support for those Democrats who work with him.
Although Democrats may agree with Obama’s broad goals, they do not agree with all it takes to achieve them -- especially in his budget, which makes little short-term progress in deficit reduction yet calls for spending cuts in many programs.
Lincoln is a dedicated proponent of fiscal responsibility. But she sharply denounced the cuts in farm subsidies that are crucial to her state. That is not only good constituent service, but good 2010 politics in a state that voted heavily against Obama in the 2008 election.
Elsewhere around the country, Rep. Suzanne Kosmas -- a freshman Democrat from a Republican-leaning part of Florida -- minced no words in complaining about Obama’s proposed cuts to the NASA budget. The space industry is one of the largest employers in her district.
“The president’s proposal lacks a bold vision for space exploration and begs for the type of leadership that he has described as critical for inspiring innovation for the 21st century,” Kosmas said.
In the swing state of Missouri, Democratic Senate candidate Robin Carnahan denounced Obama’s budget as profligate. “I’m disappointed in the president’s budget recommendation,” she said. “Missouri families have to balance their checkbooks and our government is no different.”
Carnahan, Missouri’s secretary of state, is trying to run as an outsider. But Republicans have tagged her “Rubber-stamp Robin” for supporting Obama’s healthcare bill and other initiatives.
Probably no Democrat has more of a burden in defending Obama’s budget than Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.), the House Budget Committee chairman, who is facing a strong opponent in his Republican-leaning district.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has run an ad attacking him for his record in handling deficit-laden budgets. Spratt has not backed down, even joining in a photo op with fellow Democrats when Obama’s budget was delivered Monday to Capitol Hill.
The photo was run on a conservative blog under the headline: “Budget now in Spratt’s liberal hands.”