President Obama’s latest spending blueprint is more political road map than problem solver, another in a string of pragmatic moves aimed squarely at independent voters.
Make no mistake: This budget won’t be the one Congress approves. But it represents an attempt by Obama to hold the line on gains from the first half of his term, now that Republicans share power in Washington.
It does so by following a “triangulation” strategy borrowed from President Clinton, while largely ducking the country’s most serious fiscal threat: unsustainable spending for benefits like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
The budget marks Obama’s latest move to the right in pursuit of a shifting political center after the midterm election setback three months ago. It’s an attempt to position him in the middle — above both the Democratic left, which Obama knew he would anger and disappoint with his spending cuts, and a Republican right eager to slash government even more deeply.
For now, at least, the president seems prepared to play defense during a long period expected to yield few, if any, major gains for the White House.
Obama “is focusing on the politics of the problem and not the problem,” said William Galston, a top domestic policy advisor in the Clinton White House. “If you address only the politics of the problem, the problem doesn’t go away. There’s a real world out there. There is a bond market out there. And there are people who vote, including a lot of people in the middle of the political spectrum, who care about the issue of long-term fiscal sustainability.”
Those in the middle are Obama’s main targets: the millions of swing voters who regard themselves as neither Democrat nor Republican and want government put on a diet. In stopping short of deeper cuts, the president is counting on a backlash against some of the more drastic Republican proposals needed to meet austere targets set by conservative “tea party"-inspired lawmakers.
The president’s budget calls for cuts in low-income energy assistance, environmental protection, higher education grants and aid to cities and towns, all of which drew criticism from liberals and affected interest groups. But Obama is also seeking new spending for, among other programs, elementary and secondary education and medical research, both broadly popular with the public.
For the first time, the budget was prepared under the direction of seasoned Clinton administration veterans Jacob Lew and Gene Sperling, respectively Obama’s top budget and economic advisors.
White House spokesmen have rejected comparisons of Obama’s post-midterm maneuvers to Clintonian triangulation, a strategy designed to strengthen the president by playing off both Democratic and Republican legislators.
Obama, whose 2008 campaign inspired millions of idealistic young supporters, has been a pragmatic centrist all along, they maintain.
In any case, the model that helped the last Democratic president win reelection was reflected both in Obama’s budget and the reaction to it.
Third Way, a centrist Democratic organization, issued a statement praising Obama “for taking on dozens of sacred cows cherished by members of his own party.” The president “reached beyond his base and stepped up to the plate for the good of the nation,” the group said.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky criticized Obama for “a status quo budget at a time when serious action is needed.”
But Republicans face challenges of their own in the fast-approaching battle over federal spending, expected to consume Washington for the remainder of Obama’s term. Already, Congress is hurtling toward a potential government shutdown deadline less than three weeks from now.
And House Republicans are clamoring for ever deeper cuts to the 2011 budget, a debate that could drag on. A third complication is a brewing battle over raising the government’s debt ceiling.
All that means there will be less time to complete action on the 2012 budget.
Lurking in the background are memories of the last time a Democratic president tried triangulation. More than 15 years ago, Clinton wrestled with congressional Republicans over spending and the budget, eventually leading to government shutdowns that backfired politically on the GOP.
During the same period, Clinton also challenged liberal orthodoxy and sharply divided his own party by enacting, with overwhelming Republican support, an overhaul of the federal welfare system.
Some political observers see no realistic hope for progress on the seemingly intractable problems of today, such as fixing the long-term causes of the federal deficit, at least until the next presidential term begins in 2013.
Then, pressure to bend the cost curve will be more intense and the margin for error even smaller. But there may be a tiny window for action, this year or next, particularly if voters in the middle of the political spectrum demand it.