Posted by: Jeff | February 15, 2011

The Obama Budget

Political commentators everywhere are debating the merits of federal budgeting this week.  The past few weeks have seen a number of GOP proposals to curtail federal spending, including a rash and radical plan by Rand Paul to cut most federal agencies (and their services) in half.  Yesterday the Obama Administration unveiled their proposed budget, and reactions are pretty strong.

Andrew Sullivan, in particular, is outraged at the budget’s limited cuts:

[W]hen you have a new opportunity to set a new fiscal compass in a slowly recovering economy, outflank the GOP on the long-term debt, and help prevent a looming fiscal collapse, and you give the lame-ass SOTU Obama gave and unveil the risibly unserious budget we got yesterday, you reveal yourself as, well, not exactly change and certainly not hope.

I understand Andrew’s sentiment, but can’t help but agree with his more cautiously optimistic readers:

Readers tell me Obama is once again playing the long game, tactically outsmarting Republicans, while freezing domestic discretionary spending, and waiting for his second term to deliver the real cuts and tax reform the US desperately needs. Usually, there is some evidence for this. But not now.”

One of the things I love about Andrew Sullivan is his unrestrained passion and his willingness to take a strong stand for what he believes is right.  He doesn’t hesitate to point out hypocrisy or timidness in policy debates, and that’s a great virtue.  But it is true also that patience has never been Andrew’s greatest virtue.

I understand his frustration that defense isn’t touched in this budget.  Spending in the Pentagon is long overdue for scrutiny and significant scaling back.  And Medicare unquestionably needs to be reformed.  But if Obama goes after defense during the Afghanistan conflict, the GOP can hang him with it without even trying.  So he’s proposed a budget that will largely freeze things where they are, put some money down on quick infrastructure stimulus, curtail further federal bloating, cut down some low-hanging fruit, and bide his time until he’s politically able to go after the entrenched stuff.

This isn’t my ideal budget, but it’s not an ideal time, either.  The health care reform process certainly wasn’t ideal – the process was ugly and frustrating.  Same with DADT.  But the results have come, despite critics lambasting the President in each case for not taking a strong and immediate stand.  We saw this in Egypt as well, where Marc Lynch chided cynics for leaping to criticize the President:

By the way, for those keeping score in the “peacefully removing Arab dictators” game, it’s now Obama 2, Bush 0.   The administration has been subjected to an enormous amount of criticism over the last two weeks for its handling of Egypt, including by people inspired by or who worked on the previous administration’s Freedom Agenda.  It was also attacked sharply from the left, by activists and academics who assumed that the administration was supporting Mubarak and didn’t want democratic change.  In the end, Obama’s strategy worked.  Perhaps this should earn it some praise, and even some benefit of the doubt going forward.

The point is that Obama’s budget is a bitter pill to swallow with so much consensus that something more needs to be done to balance the budget.  But with so much disagreement about what that something else is, it’s hard to see a solution that wouldn’t present its own immediate problems.  Obama has shown a surprising adeptness at playing the long game in the past.  I’m not so quick to condemn him for playing it again.  And when contrasted with the GOP alternative right now, I’m happy with a budget that takes a tentative but sure step in the right direction – especially given that I’m hopeful Obama once again has his eye on a long-term objective.

I also believe that Andrew discounts the importance of a second term.  The budget is of paramount importance, yes, but isn’t a budget that doesn’t go far enough in the right direction still preferable to a GOP that won’t care about DADT, alternative energy, public diplomacy, international assistance, urban development, infrastructure and transportation, financial reform, and civil liberties?  To say nothing of access and quality of health care and education.

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