What does a presidential budget even mean? Is it merely a symbolic document, or is it an actual working template for the federal government's coming year?
For some people, the answer to that question seems to depend on the point they're trying to make. For the Right, the president's budget is an empty rhetorical exercise -- except when it comes to Social Security, in which case his reversal on the chained CPI has doomed us all.
"This reaffirms what has become all too apparent," said House Speaker John Boehner's spokesman. "The president has no interest in doing anything, even modest, to address our looming debt crisis."
The White House said that it removed the chained CPI cut, which appeared in his budget for the first time last year, because it was there to pave the way for a "Grand Bargain," and that prospect looks increasingly unlikely. Nevertheless, the administration made it clear that it would still be willing to accept this cut were such a deal to ultimately prove feasible.
The president has repeatedly said that he would accept this cut in return for some revenue increases, and he reiterated that last week. So why would Boehner claim that Obama "has no interest in doing anything"? Doesn't that really mean that it's Boehner who has no interest in doing anything?
To be clear: That "anything" was likely to have been an anti-growth, pro-austerity agreement which further harms the middle class. But, at least from the looks of things, it's the GOP and not the White House which is standing in the way.
It's not as if the president's inclusion of this cut provoked a lot of warm and friendly rhetoric from Republicans last time around. In fact, it took congressional Republicans only 15 minutes to attack the president for what was described as "a shocking attack on seniors."
And John Boehner may only be holding the speaker's gavel because presidential talk of Social Security and Medicare cuts allowed the Republicans to recapture the House in 2010 on what they called a "seniors' Bill of Rights."
What's more, it's disingenuous for Boehner -- or, for that matter, anyone in either party -- to suggest that Social Security cuts are a way to "address our looming debt crisis." Social Security is forbidden by law from contributing to the federal deficit.
As for the president and his supporters, it is clear that the chained CPI is well-liked by both the White House's key economic players -- and by many of the commentators who support them. That's unfortunate, because it is inaccurate, unjust, and economically unwise. But like it, they do.
It appears that both the Republicans and the White House like it, but neither wants such a politically unpopular measure hung around their neck -- especially in an election year.
Yes, a number of progressive leaders and groups campaigned aggressively to have the White House remove the chained CPI from this year's budget. They did so for perfectly rational and coherent reasons -- namely, because they view the president's budget as both a rhetorical and a practical document.
When the president affixes his name and his prestige to an idea like this one, he lends it with a weight and legitimacy it does not deserve. He also ties his party to an unpopular policy. And he potentially lays the groundwork for precisely the kind of "bargain" which has proven so harmful to the middle class in recent years. For these reasons, the president's decision was precisely the progressive victory which Roger Hickey and others have claimed.
And yet, a number of White House-friendly commentators have resorted to self-negating arguments to claim otherwise. Some of those arguments could be found in a piece from the Washington Post's Obama-friendly "WonkBlog" headlined "Liberals didn't kill Obama's Social Security cut; Republicans did."
Why? Because, argues writer Zachary Goldfarb, Obama was only "willing" to accept the cuts as part of a broader agreement. And yet, a few short paragraphs later, Goldfarb states that "many liberals didn't understand ... that Obama kept (the benefit cut) on the table not just as a token to Republicans -- many of his advisers believed that chained CPI, with protections for poor seniors, was a good policy that used a more accurate measure of inflation."
Actually, most "liberals" pushing the president on this issue clearly understood that this was a policy he liked. That's one reason why they pushed so hard to have it excluded from this budget: so that the president would be forced to stop pushing it so aggressively this time around.
It's Goldfarb, not liberals, who has a consistency problem. Obama wasn't "willing" to accept the chained CPI -- he supported it, as Goldfarb himself acknowledges. If he supports it, why was it removed from his budget? If the answer to that question isn't policy-based, it must be political.
And if it was a political decision, who but the left could have been providing the political pressure?
Nevertheless, Jonathan Chait, writing in New York magazine, claims that "The disappointed deficit scolds sitting just to Obama's right, and the joyous progressives just to his left, are committing the same fallacy. They are mistaking a step premised on an impossibility for a semblance of reality."
Chait's argument is based on the premise that the last budget was an act of meta-strategy on the president's part (part of a presumed presidential omniscience which is sometimes sardonically described by skeptics as "11-dimensional chess"). Chait suggests that the President knew the Republicans would never strike a "Grand Bargain" and merely included the chained CPI to illustrate the GOP's intransigence.
That argument flies in the face of both logic and the historical record. Obama did more than just include the chained CPI in his budget. He argued for it, forcefully. He gave every indication that he considered a Grand Bargain attainable. Chait's argument is undercut by Goldfarb's more accurate observation that this is a policy which the president and his team appear to support.
Besides, if the chained CPI was merely a one-time fakeout which had already been discarded, why were the president's aides so evasive on the topic in recent weeks? This has all the hallmarks of a last-minute decision, driven by escalating political heat from the left.
Liberals have been clear on both the rhetorical and political dimensions of the chained CPI. A number of us (Dean Baker, Digby, this author, and others) have written extensively on both aspects of its presence in Obama's last budget, and many of us have discussed policy, political tactical reasons for its exclusion this time around. A number of progressive organizations have pushed for its removal on just such moral, tactical, and political grounds -- mustering facts and figures, commissioning polls, and doing the other spade-and-mortar work of activism.
So why are we seeing a ritual oversimplification of the progressives' work in this area?
Without these efforts there was no reason to exclude it from this year's budget -- especially given the friction and bad press that would cause with Republicans, budget hawks, and self-proclaimed "centrists."
It's change, not stasis, which provides evidence of an outside force. That force almost certainly came from progressives. Could the chained CPI be revived at some point, perhaps as part of a surprise deal? Of course. But, for now at least, it's dead. Surely it wouldn't hurt the president and these commentators too much to acknowledge that the left deserves a little credit for that.