Obama's budget pitch is deja vu and DOA
For better or worse (probably worse), President Obama is trying to reach out to Republicans yet again, seeking a deficit-cutting budget deal yet again, beckoning them to join him in the sensible center. But we've seen this play before, and we all know how it ends. Republicans wouldn't join forces with the hated Other even if he personally mailed tax rebates to billionaires and changed his name to Ayn Rand.
In his budget blueprint for the new fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, and in the spirit of compromise, Obama is expected to formally announce this week that he's willing to cut Social Security - in other words, to assail a sacred cow and thus tick off his liberal base. (The base is hugely ticked off already.) And in exchange for cutting Social Security, he's asking that Republicans agree to help him raise more revenue.
This is a lot like what Obama has offered Republicans in past budget negotiations that came to naught, and just as his political enemies said no before, they're saying no again now. Their basic message: Don't bother asking us to compromise, just give us the safety net cuts.
That's quite cheeky, given the fact that they lost the presidential election, lost the aggregate popular vote in the Senate races, and lost the aggregate popular vote in the House races, but that's what they're all about - the audacity of nope. Thus, House Speaker John Boehner last Friday: "If the president believes these modest entitlement savings are needed to help shore up these programs, there's no reason they should be held hostage for more tax hikes. That's no way to lead and move the country forward."
The Friday tiff - a mere prelude to the next budget fracas - demonstrates yet again how little room there is to maneuver in dysfunctional D.C.
Obama is going into Clinton mode again, trying to "triangulate" (a Clinton era buzzword) by carving out some kind of centrist turf between his liberal base and the GOP opposition. Obama press secretary Jay Carney said Friday that the president's offer of Social Security cuts "is a serious compromise proposition that demonstrates that he wants to get things done...We in Washington ought to do the business of the American people by coming together and finding common ground....He's looking for partners on the other side of the aisle who agree with him."
But it's no surprise that his offer seems to be a lose-lose. Republicans still don't want to talk about new revenues, and many insist that Obama's proposed Social Security cuts aren't deep enough. Meanwhile, the Democratic base is furious that Obama has offered to touch Social Security at all. Obama wants to use a cost-of-living allowance formula - known as chained CPI - that's less generous than the current formula; under chained CPI, a Social Security beneficiary's annual income after 30 years would be roughly $1400 less than it would be under the current formula.
Obama's ballistic base
In liberal circles, "chained CPI" is already a toxic phrase, roughly akin to "Dick Cheney." And Obama is being flogged for offering to use it. Hence, liberal activist-commentator Robert Reich: "If average Americans have trusted the Democratic party to do one thing over the years, it's been to guard these programs from the depredations of the GOP. Why should Democrats now lead the charge against them?"
And Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn.org: "Millions of MoveOn members did not work night and day to put President Obama into office so that he could propose policies that would hurt some of our most vulnerable people. Just as we fought and defeated President Bush's pan to privatize Social Security, we will mobilize and stop this attempt to diminish the vital guarantee of Social Security."
And Obama's olive branch may well complicate the lives of Democratic congressmen running for re-election in 2014. If they show loyalty to the president and indulge his Social Security offer, they risk being primaried by liberal challengers. (A mirror of the tea-party problem that has lately plagued incumbent Republicans.) But if liberal Democratic congressmen distance themselves from Obama's offer, they risk reducing his clout - because he'd need all their votes if a budget showdown were to occur.
So it's the same old dilemma. When Obama gets confrontational with the Republicans, he usually gets nowhere. But when he does the olive branch bit (as he is now), he usually gets nowhere. Indeed, The New York Times framed his dilemma in a similar way this morning:
Representative Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, called this predicament Mr. Obama’s "Catch-22." And Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, said he had often seen it at work since 2010 while negotiating with Republican lawmakers to reach a long-term budget agreement. At times, Mr. Warner said, Republicans would urge him to get Mr. Obama more involved, saying, "Gosh, Warner, we’ve got to have the president." Other times, he said, the same lawmakers would plead otherwise, saying, "If the president comes out for this, you know it is going to kill us in the House."
Ultimately, Obama is probably just going for a public relations victory. By signaling that he's willing to anger his own base by compromising on a sainted entitlement program, he can then paint the nope Republican response as fresh proof that the GOP is allergic to getting things done. Maybe that's good grist for the 2014 midterm elections - he'd dearly love to take back the House, and thus save his second-term agenda - but if a PR victory is the best he can do in the impending budget battle, it'll tell us all we need to know about the current state of dysfunction.
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1