Obama Budget Is Failure of Will and Imagination

Published Apr 12, 2013. By Rex Nutting.

WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) — President Barack Obama’s latest budget proposal is a failure of both political will and political imagination. We waited two months for this?

Obama bragged that he’d met the Republicans “more than halfway.”

True. But his budget planmoves us no closer to the kind of grand bargain he seems to believe would finally put an end to the partisan deficit wars. Indeed, the release of the budget merely served as another opportunity for that partisanship to flare up.

Obama’s conciliatory gestures — repeating his offer for $1.8 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years, including reductions in Social Security benefits — did not lead to an equally open-handed gesture on the part of the Republicans.

Predictably, Republican leaders rejected Obama’s plan as soon as it was released. In fact, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell rejected it the day before it was released, saying Obama had merely reheated leftovers from last year that should have been tossed in the garbage instead.

House Speaker John Boehner said Obama did “deserve some credit” for agreeing to cut entitlement spending, a concession that puts Obama at odds with almost the entire Democratic Party. And then, with his next breath, Boehner issued a refusal to budge an inch on his own party’s sacred pledge to never again even entertain the idea of higher taxes.

If Obama thought that meeting Boehner halfway would break the logjam, then he hasn’t learned a thing in his four years in the White House. The Republicans don’t appear to care about deficits or debts at all. If they did, they’d bargain with Obama, and maybe they’d accept Obama’s concessions on Social Security and Medicare and offer their own concessions on taxes.

In that alternate universe, we could have had a deal a year and a half ago. We could have dealt with the deficits for the next 10 years and moved on to other, more pressing problems — of which we have many.

While Republicans were universally panning Obama’s budget plan, another group in Washington was praising him: the lobbying groups that have been promoting deficit reduction as America’s No. 1 problem. “The president deserves credit for political courage,” said Robert Bixby, head of the Concord Coalition. Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget said Obama had shown himself to be “serious” about fiscal reform.

But Obama is not negotiating with these groups. Getting a pat on the back fromBixby,MacGuineas or Pete Peterson might make Obama feel loved, but it’s the people on Capitol Hill who count.

Obama’s budget will never pass, and he knows it, but for some reason he acts as if he’ll get credit for being the more reasonable one in this debate. As if there were a cosmic judge keeping score.

But I think history judges us on what we accomplish, not just on our intentions.

Of course, all presidents know their budgets won’t be enacted in their entirety. But that’s not the only reason to propose something. Presidents and other politicians also use these kinds of opportunities to present their vision of what America could be, and how government can help make that vision a reality.

Here is where Obama failed to engage his imagination. His budget plan isn’t going to pass, so why not use the opportunity to spell out how he would use the government to make this a more prosperous, more just and more equal union?

There should be something liberating about knowing that the budget you are presenting will be “dead on arrival,” and that it won’t even become the starting point for discussions. This is your opportunity to say what you think.

Instead, Obama’s budget is full of compromises. Which is to say, it’s full of things Obama doesn’t believe in. Cutting Social Security benefits, for instance.

Instead of highlighting his beliefs and emphasizing the differences between Democrats and Republicans, Obama’s budget obscures the choices we must make. And, by compromising so readily, Obama can’t even make a strong case for the things he like to accomplish. He’s given up before he even gets started.

For instance, Obama thinks every child in America should have access to high-quality preschool. But his budget only funds about two-thirds of the $100 billion it would cost for the first 10 years. Why not ask for more?

Obama is dissatisfied with the pace of job growth and with the poor state of American roads, bridges, ports and other infrastructure. The needs — both in terms of job creation and physical infrastructure — are massive.

Yet his budget only funds $40 billion for immediate repairs, compared with the $3.6 trillion that engineers say is needed. By contrast, the Congressional Progressive Caucus budget recommends spending $2.9 trillion on job creation and public investment. Its budget isn’t going to pass either, but at least it stands for something.

Obama says climate change is a grave long-term threat, but his budget doesn’t include such sensible policies as a carbon tax or a market mechanism to discourage the burning of fossil fuels.

I could go on, but you get the point: The Obama budget fails both as a starting point for serious negotiations and as a blueprint for Obama’s vision.  

Rex Nutting is a columnist and MarketWatch's international commentary editor, based in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @RexNutting.