Obama's scalpel strategy
February 15, 2011By Dick Polman
Policy and politics are typically intertwined. Case in point: President Obama's 2012 budget blueprint, which foreshadows his 2012 re-election strategy.
Obama intends to chart a middle course - much the way Bill Clinton situated himself between the liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans in 1995 and 1996 - and if that requires Obama to take big hits from both the left and the right, then so be it. Obama's goal is to capture the swing-voting independents who think that liberals don't want to cut the budget enough, but fear that conservatives want to cut it too much. As Obama remarked this morning at a press conference, he prefers to use "a scalpel...not a machete."
Obama's budget, which aims to trim the deficit by $1.1 trillion over the next decade, is predictably being savaged by both sides. Republicans (who have miraculously rediscovered fiscal conservatism after repeatedly indulging George W. Bush's budget-busting, debt-ridden, China-borrowing big-government expansion) complain that Obama isn't slashing enough. A GOP statement denounced his '12 budget as "bloated." Indeed, House Republicans are trying to set a good example. They're seeking to de-bloat the current fiscal year budget by severely slashing food inspections, nutrition programs for pregnant women and newborns, college aid for cash-strapped grad students, and home heating assistance for the poor and elderly.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, liberals are assailing Obama as a heartless wimp who has bought into the Republican austerity narrative. He too wants to trim college aid (the popular Pell grants), just not as much as the GOP. He too wants to trim home heating assistance, just not as much as the GOP. As part of his proposed five-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending, he also wants to trim commnunity-service grants (a bit ironic, given his own stint as a community service guy).
Ari Berman, a prominent liberal commentator, remarked yesterday, with barely concealed disgust, "We're living in odd times when a Democratic president is okay spending billions of dollars on an unpopular and seemingly unwinnable war in Afghanistan, but has no problem cutting heating aid for poor Americans in the midst of the coldest winter in memory." And Obama's December deal with Republicans, to extend the Bush tax cuts for the rich, still rankles the left. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, whose members include many Obama '08 veterans, scathingly complains that preserving "the unncessary tax cuts for Wall Street millionaires...while slashing and burning necessary government programs, is right-wing radicalism, and no Democratic president should be part of it."
The budget battle will be protracted and predicably ugly, but the White House is clearly betting that an updated dose of Clintonian centrism will ultimately serve them well, at least with respect to their electoral prospects in 2012.
It's arguably a sign of weakness that Obama feels compelled, by political circumstance, to mimic the Republicans' small-government mantra - which means that final negotiations on the '12 budget could yield deeper program cuts than Obama currently envisions (much to the dismay of his own party). He's also caving to the Republican argument that the government shouldn't spend money to create jobs (much to the dismay of his own party, not to mention the jobless).
On the other hand, Obama is signaling to middle-of-the-road voters that he too recognizes the need for tough love on the budget and the deficit, and that a middle course would position him to fight the excesses on both ideological wings. Under this scenario, he'll be well situated to benefit from (or, indeed, to exploit) any public backlash against wholesale Republican slashing.
And polls suggest that Obama is correctly reading the public mood. The basic message, in a late-January CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey, is that the public wants smaller government - but mostly in the abstract. The public favors some cuts - but mostly in moderation. Landslide majorities oppose "significant cuts" in jobless aid, infrastructure, veterans' benefits, education, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
Meanwhile, the latest nonpartisan Pew Research Center poll says "there is not a great deal of support for cutting spending" - for instance, only 11 percent of Americans favor cuts in federal spending on education, only 23 percent favor spending cuts in energy programs, only 26 percent favor cuts in environmental protection, only 23 percent favor cuts in scientific research, and only 28 percent favor cuts in jobless aid. (Pew also reports that the tea-partiers typically support deep cuts - but that the tea-partiers are out of the mainstream, representing only 17 percent of Americans.)
And even amidst the polarization and bleak economic tidings, it's tough to defeat a sitting president. Clinton in 1996 had the good fortune to be running against Bob Dole, who underwhelmed his own party. Obama, in the latest Fox News poll, handily beats every hypothetical opponent. (Mitt Romney comes closest, losing by seven points. The former half-term governor of Alaska does the worst, losing by 21.)
All told, a centrist path on the budget, at a time when there are no good options and a multitude of conflicting ideological critics, seems at the moment to be a thankless task. But, in terms of the '12 campaign, it might be the smartest political strategy. Although, admittedly, there is something less than inspiring about the prospect of Obama successfully muddling through as the nation and its economy muddle along.