Obama’s budget: A play for the center?

Washington – The plan wasn’t even officially out before the criticism started rolling in.

President Obama’s proposed $3.7 trillion budget was slammed by the left and the right Monday. Outraged liberals called it a callous assault on the poor; dismissive conservatives labeled it a debt-riddled assault on future generations.

Which raises the question: Is Obama’s budget blueprint exactly what the president needs to capture the broad political center in the runup to 2012?

The president’s fiscal year 2012 budget would cut deficits by $1.1 trillion over the next decade, according to White House estimates. Two-thirds of the deficit cuts would come from spending reductions; a third would come from tax hikes.

The plan includes a five-year freeze on nonsecurity discretionary spending. Some programs, such as low-income heating assistance, would face the budget knife. New limits would be placed on deductions for home mortgage interest and charitable contributions.

But the most expensive and politically popular programs — including Medicare and Social Security — would remain largely untouched, against the recommendations of Obama’s own deficit reduction commission.

While it trims annual deficits, the president’s budget would still add $7.2 trillion to the nation’s publicly held debt by 2021.

“Every cut to necessary programs … needs to be judged in the context of the unnecessary tax cuts for Wall Street millionaires that passed at the end of last year,” the Progressive Change Campaign Committee said in a statement, referring to Obama’s deal extending the Bush-era tax cuts for two more years.

“We must make bigger investments in America’s future starting now — and ask the Wall Street millionaires who got us into this mess to do more to help pay for it.”

The committee counts hundreds of 2008 Obama campaign staffers among its members.

Obama “says that he wants to work with us to begin reining in spending, but … (his budget goes) in exactly the opposite direction,” said New Jersey Rep. Scott Garrett, a top House Budget Committee Republican. “Today is Valentine’s Day, but I don’t know if this is the card that America was hoping to get from the administration. It’s a

card that says you owe more to the federal government.”

The president’s proposed cuts are not nearly deep enough, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, told CNN’s “American Morning.” His planned “reduction is insignificant and does not get us off on the right course. We are facing a fiscal crisis.”

Obama responded by characterizing the plan as a successful balance of sorely needed new investments and long-term spending reductions.

“While it’s absolutely essential to live within our means … we can’t sacrifice our future in the process,” he told reporters while touting some targeted new education spending. “We have a responsibility to invest in those areas that will have the biggest impact in our future” while “demanding accountability.”

The president called his plan a “down payment” on greater long-term fiscal responsibility.

Top congressional Democrats rallied to Obama’s side. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, called the president’s plan a “tough love budget” that “strikes the right balance.”

Van Hollen said it stands in “stark contrast” to the “blind budget slashing” of House Republicans, who have proposed cutting more than $60 billion from spending for the remainder of the current fiscal year.

Are there echoes in Obama’s maneuvering of former President Bill Clinton’s shift to the political center after Republicans captured Congress in 1994? Clinton famously declared an end to “the era of big government” while launching a high-profile defense of popular spending on Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment, among other things.

Clinton’s so-called triangulation — taking credit for the most popular aspects of each party’s agenda — helped to position him between Democratic liberals and Republican conservatives heading into the 1996 campaign.

Safely ensconced in the political center and bolstered by a strengthening economy, he rolled to an easy re-election.

One difference between Clinton in 1995 and Obama in 2011 is that “Clinton sacrificed his agenda-setting powers to engage in triangulation — looking responsive more than proactive,” said Wendy Schiller, a Brown University political science professor.

Obama “needed to present a tough budget, and depending on how it’s managed, the larger the Democratic outcry over it, the more credible he will seem to the fiscally concerned independent voters that are key to his re-election in 2012,” she said. The risk for Obama, Schiller said, is angering his party’s base voters “so much that they stay home in 2012.”

Schiller also warned of a backlash against Republicans calling for deeper cuts. There may be a large number of voters “who did not realize how much they needed federal spending until it was taken away from their communities,” she said. “Not only will that help Obama in 2012, it may do damage to the longer-term Republican goal of shrinking the size and scope of the federal government.”

As for the unwillingness of either party to address Social Security and Medicare, Schiller said the day could come “when they will squeeze out almost all other domestic federal spending. Obama and the Republicans just hope to delay that day of reckoning as long as possible.”

“The glaring omission of any significant entitlement reforms … does not help to advance the conversation,” added Maya MacGuineas, head of the Committee for a Responsible Budget.

“Republicans have set up a major confrontation on immediate domestic spending cuts, which are irrelevant to the deficit and debt problem,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The president has engaged them at that level now. Grappling with (entitlement spending in) the medium and long term will have to await an altered political environment.”

That may be fine with most voters.

According to a January 21-23 CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, more than seven in 10 Americans say they back an agenda to reduce the size of government. A majority believe it’s very important for the president and Congress to deal with the deficit.

But roughly 80 percent of Americans would rather prevent significant cuts to Medicare and Social Security than reduce the deficit. Overwhelming majorities also shy away from cuts in education, veterans’ benefits, infrastructure spending or aid to the unemployed.

So cut, but not too much. And steer clear of the most popular programs.

On paper, at least, the broader electorate appears to be embracing positions fairly closely in line with an administration now gearing up for a tough re-election fight.

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