Budget Blowback Threatens Obama’s Centrist Stance

Obama Lonely in Budget Defense

“It's becoming hard not to conclude that Obama doesn't much care about the debt threat or has decided to wait until after the 2012 elections. Either would be a shame, and economically risky.”

-- USA Today editorial

President Obama will hold a press conference this morning in answer to the wide criticism of his budget proposal.

He needs to speak out because his plan didn’t get much of a defense from his own team.

The muted response of many Democrats on the president’s budget might have been disconcerting to the Obama administration. But given the crash of denunciations for the giant spending plan, their silence was probably much appreciated.

Aside from his core supporters, people like Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and the folks at the Center for American Progress think tank, there was little good said about the Obama budget on its debut day.

Conservatives were, of course, apoplectic. The plan features huge tax increases, small, delayed cuts to spending and reductions to deductions for charitable giving. It is essentially the same plan Obama has had on offer since he got to town, but with a few tweaks.

Hard-core liberals complained that Obama was even paying lip service to Republican calls for cuts. But the liberal opposition was limited to a few mostly marginal voices, like Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill. The push for stimulus spending beyond what Obama is currently proposed has mostly withered since the realities of a Republican House set in.

Some business leaders panned the Obama plan for its new burdens on banks and energy companies, with a Chamber of Commerce statement calling the new taxes “punitive.”

But where Obama really went off the rails with this budget is with moderates, the group most prone to high anxiety over the national debt. Obama’s decision to ignore the bipartisan recommendations of his own debt reduction commission brought near gasps from the good-government crowd that had been so excited by the president’s promises of a new fiscal responsibility.

Proposing a budget that cuts the debt in 10 years by only as much as it would in its first year isn’t the way to win the admiration of the deficit hawks that roost in centrist think tanks and newspaper editorial boards.

Obama knows his plan doesn’t have a chance of passage, so it must be viewed as a largely political document. This is more of a position paper than a legislative proposal.

So what was Obama trying to achieve?

It is likely that the president is hoping to set himself up as the moderate in the battles to come with House Republicans over current year spending and the debt ceiling. Obama’s budget makes Republican proposals look harsher and gives the president lots and lots of room to negotiate.

Maybe so, but Obama has also lost a great deal of admiration with the plan and opened himself up to charges of rank cynicism. The Washington Post today wonders what ever happened to the guy who would rather be a “really good one-term president” and the folks over at the Brookings Institution are expressing anxiety that Obama may not be the serious man they supposed him to be.

Obama’s ability to get elected in 2008 despite a very liberal voting record and platform depended in large part on the vouchers of media-celebrated centrists like Colin Powell and Warren Buffett. If Obama continues to duck tough issues in the run up to 2012, he’ll find less love in those quarters.

Expect Obama today to do two things today – talk up his budget bona fides and try to put the onus on Republicans to deal with systemic budget problems like Social Security.

House Readies Raspberry for Obama Spending Plan

"Our goal is to listen to the American people and liberate our economy from the shackles of debt, over-taxation and big government."

-- Speaker John Boehner previewing for reporters the Republican spending bill to be taken up today

The first real answer to President Obama’s massive federal budget comes today as House Republicans take up their plan to gut federal spending for the remaining seven months of the fiscal year.

The Republican plan, which cuts more than $70 billion from current spending levels and $100 billion from Obama’s request for the same period, hits the House floor today. The measure was produced Friday after fiscal hawks in the GOP caucus rebelled against a proposed slate of reductions of nearly half that size.

This is the first time in the modern legislative era where lawmakers will be allowed to offer amendments to the bill on the floor. Some Democrats are grousing because the process is tricky in that the amendment must be offered as the clerk reads the relevant section of the bill. But compared to the iron rule of the Pelosi regime, this is a veritable mosh pit.

The cuts come from across the slightly more than one third of the budget known as “discretionary,” a Washington term for funds not controlled by a funding formula or a pre-existing obligation like debt repayment, Social Security and Medicaid.

Some of the big-ticket cuts from current spending levels in the bill include:

$1.1 billion from Treasury

$1.6 billion from the federal building fund

$2.9 billion from the Department of Labor

$8.5 billion from the Department of Health

$4.8 billion from the Department of Education

$1 billion for the Clinton-era Americorps program

$6 billion from military construction and veterans affairs

$4.9 billion from high-speed rail

Democrats are howling over the cuts, which they say will cause huge disruptions to social services, foreign aid, infrastructure projects and everything else the government does. Senate Democrats have promised to block the most severe cuts and are already preparing for a protracted budget fight with the House.

Republicans, meanwhile, are embracing the depiction of budget slashers and heralding the cuts as a massive blow against big government and the Obama agenda.

The standoff is getting tenser by the current stopgap measure that’s keeping the government operating set to expire on March 4, and already the talk of a shutdown is on the lips of many on Capitol Hill.

But, consider this: The president’s budget forecasts that the federal government will have to borrow $1.65 trillion to fund its operations for the current fiscal year, more than 40 percent of the money spent by Washington.

But if the harshest Republican cuts were signed into law, the deficit for the year would still be the highest in history at $1.55 trillion, topping last year’s deficit by more than $300 billion.

The national debt is now equal to America’s gross domestic product and projected to rise by trillions more in the coming five years. The fight over $70 billion or $100 billion in current spending will be dramatic and certainly carries symbolic meaning about the direction of the government, but is still small beer.

But, Republicans argue that they have to start somewhere, so they will start with this.

There are 403 amendments waiting for the current year spending bill, mostly from Republicans. The next three days promise to be a sharp rebuke to the idea laid out in the president’s budget proposal.

Iran Not Anxious About Crushing Revolt

"Mubarak! Ben Ali! It's now the turn for Seyed Ali!"

-- Protesters in Iran referring to the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

For all the talk about how young Muslims have learned the lessons of Cairo and prepare to Tweet their way to region-wide revolution, it is often forgotten that dictators watched Egypt burn too.

In Iran, police with tear gas and batons swiftly and brutally suppressed internet-organized demonstrations against the ruling theocracy. Unafraid of Western pressure and with the tacit approval of the repressive regimes in Moscow and Beijing, the mullahs of Iran were not going to make Hosni Mubarak’s mistake and allow protests to gain critical mass.

Plus, having seen their attempted revolution in 2009 peter out, young Iranians are not so likely to feel like taking a chance.

Popular unrest may yet do in the mullahs, but it won’t happen in a week and it won’t come without some serious disruptions to the wider world. Remember that besieged dictatorships often look to engage foreign enemies when faced with domestic unrest.

The Facebook revolution is currently clicking away at Bahrain and Yemen with wider aspirations for bringing democracy to the entire region.

In Egypt, though, it remains unclear the direction that the interim government will take. The army has disbanded the parliament and is now calling for an end to the strikes that continue to plague the nation. Egypt already has a tiny private-sector economy and continued economic disruption could plunge the country into yet new turmoil.

Pakistan Problems Dog U.S. Policy

"This is not a matter for local courts to decide, and we continue to insist that Pakistan certify his diplomatic immunity and release him."

-- State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley on the case of an American embassy worker facing murder charges in Pakistan

The government of Pakistani President Ali Asif Zardari now says it will not oppose the release of a U.S. embassy security worker who shot and killed two men in Lahore last month, but won’t act to do so without a judge’s order.

This is a half-measure in response to an all-out diplomatic push by the Obama administration to secure the man’s release on murder charges. The Zardari government is basically saying that if a judge in the Islamist-leaning Punjab province says the worker goes free, then he goes free. It is an upgrade from the previous status in which Zardari’s government was simply ignoring the American demand.

But what if the judge rules against the American request? Zardari’s government is already teetering under the pressure of Islamists who say he is a U.S. puppet. Even if the central government wanted to, it’s hard to imagine that Zardari has the stroke in the provincial government to demand the release of Raymond Davis, who is now at the center of a nation-wide outrage.

A hearing is set for Thursday and the U.S. may be faced with an ally that either won’t secure the release of a diplomat in custody – the cornerstone of international relations – or one that lacks the control of its own system to do so.

Neither is particularly appealing when it comes to a nuclear-armed nation of 170 million.

And Now, A Word from Charles

“It talks about cuts, but these cuts are from the astronomical levels of spending in `09 and `10 that they imposed and said as an emergency matter in avoiding a depression. These were supposedly one time high numbers.

So, for example, even after these cuts, the Department of Education spending in this budget is 35 percent higher than in 2008, pre-emergency. EPA is 30 percent higher than 2008, the Department of Energy is 22 percent higher. There are no cuts in here.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier” discussing President Obama’s budget