President Barack Obama’s long-overdue budget (National Public Radio obfuscated by calling it “long-awaited”) was greeted with criticism across the political spectrum. The left lamented its minuscule adjustment to Social Security benefits in the form of “chained CPI.” Conservatives noted that Obama’s budget increased spending and the national debt, and that its deficit reductions are largely achieved through tax increases.
Even the media were puzzled by the budget’s internal contradictions (“Obama wants to cut NASA’s budget. He also wants to send people to Mars someday. Got it?” Politico asked) and its highly optimistic political assumptions, such as that Congress would reverse the budget sequester that went into effect last month. Much of the analysis missed the point: this is a budget for winning the 2014 elections, not for governing the country.
The budget is crafted to amplify Obama’s political message, including his familiar and dubious infrastructure agenda, which includes perennial Democratic Party favorites such as high-speed rail rather than investments that would yield a return in the form of economic growth and future revenues. It cuts funding for detaining illegal immigrants, while increasing spending on gun control policies, matching Obama’s current legislative agenda.
By assuming that the sequester will be reversed, Obama is signaling that he plans to continue the “parade of horribles” that he used in advance of the Mar. 1 deadline. That message did not work, but the administration has not given up. It continues to make cuts that are designed to irritate the public, while still spending on its own pleasures, including vacations, celebrity bashes at the closed-to-the-public White House, and steak dinners.
Very little in the budget is palatable to Republicans–and that is likely by design. Obama won re-election without a “grand bargain” on deficits and spending, and he likely sees greater political benefit in not having one for the 2014 midterm elections, either, as long as Republicans can be blamed for the impasse. The instant rejection of the budget by Republican leaders was entirely appropriate–and probably according to plan.
The outrage from the left over the minor changes to Social Security is overblown–deliberately so, to some extent. While some on the left undoubtedly view any adjustment at all to Social Security as a dangerous opening, many understand the value of signaling to Republicans that future changes impose an impossible political cost on Democrats–much the way conservative outrage at the fiscal cliff deal limited future tax hikes.
It is worth accepting a small change like chained CPI, then, to claim the political benefit of having “done something” on entitlements–a claim the media are sure to amplify–while foreclosing the possibility of future changes. Obama knows that the districts his party must win in 2014 are largely districts he lost in 2012. He must therefore win independents with gestures of bipartisanship, without cuts that depress base turnout.
The president’s new budget is tailor-made for that political task. But it leaves for future presidents, and future generations, the task of paying for its provisions. Obama has, once again, done exactly what he says his opponents do: put party ahead of country. In his mind, perhaps, that is all to the public good, enabling him to push a his agenda again after 2014. History will look back at this budget, however, as an abdication of leadership.