Obama's Dangerous Budget Game

A blog about business and economics.
April 5 2013 8:02 AM

Obama's Dangerous Budget Game

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President Barack Obama arrives to board Air Force One at San Francisco International Airport

Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Okay, I'm on an airplane headed to visit my in-laws in Texas but the news out today about the administration's coming budget proposal can't wait. The bottom line is that it's going to be based on the $1.8 trillion grand bargain offer that Barack Obama made to John Boehner during the fiscal cliff talks rather than on the Senate Democrats' "Foundation for Growth" budget.

Meaning, basically, that Obama's budget will feature cuts to Medicare and cuts to Social Security via the adoption of a less generous cost of living adjustment. Administration officials say, somewhat confusingly, that we shouldn't understand this proposal as reflecting Obama's vision of ideal policy. They think that would be unproductive at this point. So they want to outline what they consider a good faith effort at compromise, based on a blend of tax increases and entitlement cuts exactly as they've been seeking throughout the various iterations of grand bargain talks.

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In my mind, it's a risky strategy.

The core issue is that this is a compromise the GOP has already rejected. They've rejected it in its details, and they've also rejected it as a general concept. So if this budget is meant to underscore Obama's eagerness for a deal and willingness to compromise it doesn't really achieve that. So what it's really meant to do is throw the extent of GOP unreasonableness and unwillingness to compromise into stark relief. But I don't know what the cash value of that strategy is. To any reasonable person, the fact that the GOP ran in 2008 and 2010 and 2012 on a platform of all-cuts deficit reduction makes that clear. If you need further evidence you can look at the GOP's negotiating strategy during the 2011 debt ceiling battle, during the fiscal cliff in the 2012 lame duck session, and all throughout the sequestration controversy. You can ask John Boehner. Or Eric Cantor. Or Mitch McConnell. There's a lot that's murky in American politics, but it's incredibly clear that the reason we don't have a grand bargain on the budget is that Republicans don't want one. It's time for John Boehner to show some leadership and get a deal done, but he doesn't want to. It's crystal clear and utterly unambiguous. The White House is frustrated by the fact that lots of folks in the media don't seem to see it the way I do and this budget is, among other things, part of a strategy to turn that around. But that's a doomed strategy. The ways of bipartisanthink are mysterious and won't be unraveled by any new proposals. To many people, the fact that a deal hasn't been made is all the proof they need that both sides are equally at fault.

The risk here now is twofold. Inside the Beltway, Republicans can say "well, look, we disagree about taxes but why don't we just do these entitlement reforms that even the president thinks we should do." Meanwhile, outside the Beltway Republican candidates can run ads castigating Democrats for bankrupting the country so badly that they want to add Social Security cuts to the dastardly Medicare cuts they already implemented. Part of the point of the Senate Democrats' budget was to stake out a position of easily defensible high ground. This seems like the White House wading into a much more exposed piece of territory.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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