Moving from a discussion of an empty gesture from the White House to a potentially more substantive one, the big news Friday is that President Barack Obama is preparing to put forth his long awaited budget proposal. That word -- "news" -- probably belongs in scare quotes, because as it turns out, nothing that Obama is proposing deviates in any recognizable way from anything else he's been proposing -- a "balanced approach" that includes line item budget cuts, calls for new revenue, and "entitlement reforms." As Matt Yglesias points out, the zingy detail that everyone will be lathering up on is the fact that Obama is proposing "cuts to Medicare and cuts to Social Security via the adoption of a less generous cost of living adjustment."
But this is the same as it ever was. If we go back in time, Obama has been on a continual pursuit of a "balanced approach." The only major difference between his second-term approach and his first-term approach is the fact that during his first term, Obama made clear his explicit desire to reset the Bush-era tax cuts by shifting the rates on incomes of $250,000 and above to Clinton-era levels. Republican opposition to this was never a difficult matter to get one's head around, but Obama's reelection -- coupled with the vagaries of the so-called "fiscal cliff" -- made changing those tax cuts a fait accompli. Though we should recall that in the eleventh hour, Obama backslid a little bit and agreed to move off the $250,000 per year demand, amending it to $400,000.
Since then, the deal that Obama's been informally offering is very easy to understand -- he is offering favorable-to-conservatives terms on New Deal-era entitlement cuts and 200 some-odd pages of budget cuts, and in exchange, he wants the revenues through tax reform and loophole closures that the GOP's White House aspirants ran on in 2012.
Knowing that Obama is trying to essentially give congressional Republicans what they want in exchange for more stuff they want, lots of people are confused why a deal hasn't been made. The problem, of course, is that Obama is offering this, and congressional Republicans have decided that it's "bad politics" to take anything Obama is offering. If this deal had been forcibly extracted from the president -- say, Obama cried "Uncle!" after Mitch McConnell and John Boehner knocked him down in the Rose Garden, stripped him to his briefs and humiliated him by covering him in mayonnaise -- this would be a done deal.
That Obama seems willing -- if not cheerful -- to compromise presents an existential problem for the GOP. (In the same way, it would seem that Obama's willingness to pass an immigration reform bill cooked up by Marco Rubio is going to play a large part in whether Rubio continues to support the immigration reform bill he is cooking up.) And indeed, the statement from John Boehner Friday says the president should just move on entitlement reform and drop all other stuff in the bargain that's designed to make entitlement reform acceptable to Democrats.
But the salient point remains that, as excited as everyone seems to be over this, it's actually nothing we haven't heard before. So it's pretty bemusing to me to see this hailed as an exciting new development, as opposed to something that everyone should have long been primed to expect. Yglesias notes that perhaps the real "new development" is that Obama is striding headlong into some potentially dangerous political territory:
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.
The underlying assumption here, of course, is the idea that if Obama had his druthers he'd be aligning himself with -- and perhaps, even championing -- a more progressive solution, and I've always cautioned people about making that general assumption. He seems to have been consistently pushing for a plan that breaks with the liberal establishment in significant ways, and after a certain point, you have to perhaps entertain the notion that it's something that he authentically desires.
But the bottom line is that the major impediment to the White House, thus far, has nothing to do with the merits of what it's proposing. Rather, it's been the Grand Delusion that the president is failing to propose anything at all, despite his near constant propositioning. Over at Daily Intel, a generally (and understandably) bemused Jonathan Chait reckons that what this is offer is really designed to do is to get the Centrist Hack Pundit Community to stop "blaming Obama for failing to offer the plan he has in fact been offering," and that "by converting their offer to Boehner from an 'offer' to a 'budget,'" the White House will earn a merit badge in Bipartisanship, or something.
From there, maybe everyone's editorial output can switch from "Obama needs to show leadership" to "Come on now, Republicans, there's an offer on the table that you refuse to even debate." (And there is nothing wrong with actually having that debate, by the way.)
Nevertheless, Chait also sees a risk:
The fallback option is that the BipartisanThinkers stop blaming both sides and start blaming Republicans, though this seems like an extremely forlorn hope — more likely, the BipartisanThinkers will eventually redefine Obama’s compromise position as Big Government liberalism and the center as the halfway point between that and Paul Ryan’s plan to kill and eat the poor.
I always encourage people to take a long position on cynicism, but perhaps these hopes aren't quite so desolate.
In Christopher Nolan's film "The Prestige," Michael Caine's character explains that every magic trick is a story told in three acts: the "Pledge" (in which the magician introduces something ordinary), the "Turn" (in which the ordinary is transformed into something extraordinary), and the "Prestige" -- the part of the trick where the magician exceeds the already extraordinary demonstration he's already achieved. In terms of what the White House is doing, the budget proposals they've long offered are the "Pledge," and they seem to be succeeding at creating a "Turn" without changing a thing from the "Pledge." So, the "Prestige" in this scenario will be tricking the Centrist Hack Pundit Community into believing that some sort of transformation between "Pledge" and "Turn" actually took place.
Is it working? Well, here's the first sentence of Ron Fournier's column on Obama's "new" budget proposal:
Washington is edging closer to a budget deal, thanks to a gutsy change in strategy at the White House. Next week, President Obama will propose specific cuts to Social Security and Medicare in his annual budget, according to senior White House officials.
I know, I know. As moderately well-informed people, you can only respond to the claim that continuing to offer what you've been offering constitutes a "gutsy new strategy" by saying, "LOL." But the intended audience for this bit of sleight of hand is much, much dumber than you. So it just might work.
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