The conundrum of President Obama’s budget is that he has produced a “come let us reason together” proposal aimed at a Republican Party that has demonstrated no interest in being reasonable.
You could question the wisdom of this negotiating strategy, but it is also true that the president had little choice. He was backed into the reasonableness corner, having already put his budgetary cards on the table in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner that fizzled at the 11th — or perhaps the 13th — hour.
Having offered to change the way that Social Security cost-of-living increases are calculated — the switch to so-called chained CPI — and announced that the Boehner deal remained on the table, the president could hardly produce a budget that failed to put that switch in writing. The result would not only have been a budget dead on arrival, it would have been a bipartisan charm initiative dead before dinner — that is, the White House dinner the president hosted for Republican senators later that night.
Likewise, having told Boehner that he would accept a budget deal that produced about $1.2 trillion in new revenue — down from his initial request of $1.6 trillion — Obama couldn’t credibly return to the higher demand. It was too late for split-the-difference haggling. Hence, having obtained about $600 billion in new revenue as part of the fiscal-cliff deal, Obama’s request for another $580 billion is simultaneously less than he wants, and more than he is going to get.
Finally, having waited to unveil the proposal until “after” the House and Senate had produced budget blueprints, the administration could not write a pie-in-the-sky document. Most White House budgets are irrelevant wish lists. This one may prove more relevant, and it is far from a wish list. It’s a reasonable-under-the-circumstances compromise. The budget includes changes, such as in Social Security calculations, that have infuriated the president’s political allies. It takes important, if insufficient, steps on reining in federal health care spending. And it raises needed revenue, albeit not enough, in an entirely sensible way, by capping the value of itemized deductions for the wealthiest Americans.
In short, it’s a credible budget without a credible path to passage: a Blanche DuBois legislative strategy, except that instead of depending on the kindness of strangers, the administration is hoping for the reasonableness and good will of congressional Republicans. Administration officials find themselves in the weak position of declaring that their budget is intended not as a starting point for negotiations but as a close-to-final bid.
The most shameful of the responses from Republicans came from Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, head of the House GOP’s campaign arm, who accused the president of “trying to balance this budget on the backs of seniors.” This attack was so out of line — and so at odds with the GOP’s effort to present itself as the champion of entitlement reform — that Boehner quickly distanced himself.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp offered a more thoughtful response at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. The Michigan Republican said the switch to chained CPI and some proposed Medicare changes represented a “step forward on entitlement reform.” But he made clear that the essential standoff remains: The president is not willing to make the entitlement cuts without securing Republican agreement to raise additional tax revenue, while Republicans insist that revenue, even in the context of tax reform, is off the table. Until that stalemate is resolved, there is no path to seeing this budget, or anything close to it, enacted.
Of the three budgets that have been produced — by House Republicans, Senate Democrats and the White House — this one is by far the best, and it has the best chance of passage. But that is not, at the moment, saying very much.