Will Budget Deal Affect Obama's Chances For Re-Election?

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A deal struck by lawmakers in Washington last week, as a part of a budget compromise, has some political observers crying foul. Democrats and Republicans agreed to more than 38 billion dollars in spending cuts, to avoid a government shutdown. But as the president presents his plans for reducing national debt, the spotlight is on the biggest domestic budget cuts in U-S history. Host Michel Martin speaks with NPR Supervising Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving and pollster Matt Barreto about the implications of the budget deal for President Obama's re-election prospects.


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

She became a trusted voice for information, the groundbreaking Belva Davis. We have a (unintelligible) conversation with the African-American female television news reporter on the West Coast. That conversation is a bit later in the program.

But, first, on the day President Obama revealed his plan to reduce the federal debt, we wanted to go deeper on that $38 billion deal that averted a government shutdown. Joining us now to talk about what's on the chopping block and what is not, NPR supervising senior Washington editor Ron Elving. He's back with us. Thanks, Ron, for joining us once again.

RON ELVING: Good to be with you. Good to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, it turns out that some of these cuts were accounting gimmicks. But it's still a very large cut. And some people take a bigger hit than others. Could you just talk a little bit about what the headlines are?

ELVING: I'd say the headline is that people who benefit from transfer programs and people who benefit from programs that are primarily aimed at the poor are bearing a great weight of these cuts. Now, as you say, maybe a third of the $38 billion is not going to be felt because it has more to do with how things are accounted for by the federal government.

But you've also got things like the low income house, or excuse me, home energy assistance program, sometimes called LIHEAP for the acronym. That's going to be cut by $390 million. Now, million in Washington doesn't register. If you're not talking billions or trillions, it doesn't register. But for the individuals who rely on this program, that's going to be a real cut. It's going to mean that when we get around to next winter, there's going to be less money to help them heat their homes.

Then they have things like Pell Grants, sometimes called part of mandatory spending because it has a long-term authorization. But Pell Grants can be reduced from what they would otherwise be. So...

MARTIN: What are Pell Grants, by the way?

ELVING: Pell Grants help low-income students go to college. And up to $5,500 can be granted to one individual, low-income student to go to college through the Pell Grant program, which has been around now for many, many years and is one of the mainstays of helping people go to college.

That program takes a huge hit - over 10 years, if you want to look over the full 10 years, you're looking at an estimated $35 billion cut, including a $500 million cut this very year. Now, again, millions may not seem like a lot in terms of the Washington game of billions and trillions, but it means a great deal in terms of individuals.

Also, for people who have no health insurance, community health centers are looking at a big cut this year. And the children's health insurance program -that's run by the states - and it's called the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Some people call it SCHIP. That's taking a big cut. That amounts to billions of dollars.

And the Women, Infant and Children Nutrition Program. Now, you would think that this really would be a motherhood program, wouldn't you? Because it is literally a motherhood program for low-income pregnant women. That's being cut by half a billion dollars.

MARTIN: You mentioned that community health centers and programs. Some of these are aimed at preventing HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases and tuberculosis. Those were cut by more than a billion dollars. That's gotten a lot of attention in the health care community.

But you should also talk about what was spared. As I understand it, Head Start, that's a program that promotes school readiness among low-income youth, Race to the Top. That's a White House initiative for education reform - Race to the Top. And, also, Planned Parenthood is something we talked about earlier in the week. Now, why is that?

ELVING: Those programs were fought for more vigorously by the White House. The White House decided to draw a line in the sand. They gave up a couple of abortion-related issues with respect to the District of Columbia. But they did fight vigorously to protect the federal commitment to the overall Planned Parenthood program nationwide.

They also fought very hard for Race to the Top. That really is something that they see as the way to lift schools throughout the country, but particularly in the communities in the inner city that have had more trouble raising their test scores. This is, in a sense, their answer or their successor to the No Child Left Behind program from the Bush years.

And, also, Head Start, which is something that has a long history back into the '70s and '80s. This is something that has had a proven track record of helping and something that generally has had bipartisan support in the White House. And some of the other people involved in the negotiations on the Senate side really fought hard for Head Start. So those programs did pretty well.

Some other things such as the Environmental Protection Agency - to broaden this out a little further - went back, essentially, to something closer to the funding levels that they were getting during the Bush years, the last decade, as opposed to the increase in funding that they had gotten in the first two years of President Obama.

MARTIN: Ron, I'm going to ask you to stay with us, but now I want to bring in Matt Barreto. He's a professor of political science at the University of Washington in Seattle. He's also a pollster as well. The director of the Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. Matt, thank you for joining us once again.

Professor MATT BARRETO (Political Science, University of Washington): Sure thing.

MARTIN: Now, one of the reasons we called you is that you're starting to hear a lot of outcry from constituencies on the left and also people who are part of the coalition that got President Obama elected - people who live in urban metropolitan areas, specifically African-Americans, Latinos and progressive whites. What's the basis of their anger at this deal right now, from what we know now?

Prof. BARRETO: Well, I think as you heard the cuts being outlined here, there's a very high percentage of these cuts that are going to affect, in particular, black and Latino families. And the ones, as you mentioned, more likely to be affected in the inner city or urban areas. These are folks who were a huge part of the Obama coalition in 2008, voting at historic levels, not only in terms of turnout, but also for a Democratic candidate.

And while they are only a portion of the overall cuts, these cuts that have been outlined to things like Pell Grants, community health centers, WIC and other areas, these are things that deeply, deeply affect black and Latino families today.

And it's something that the administration doesn't want to look like they're out of touch with, you know, by saying things like this is not going to affect that many people, because it really, at the end of the day, it's going to affect people very severely who are in the lower income bracket. And that may not be an overall majority of the public, but for those folks, this could be very, very serious to them.

MARTIN: If you just tuned in, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. And I'm speaking with Matt Barreto. He's a professor of political science at the University of Washington in Seattle. He's also a pollster at the Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. And Ron Elving, NPR senior supervising editor for Washington, senior Washington editor.

We're talking about the budget deal that averted a government shutdown and the fact that these cuts seemed to affect some constituencies more than others. Now we're talking about the political implications of that. And, Matt, you wrote a piece for the website Latino Decisions. In it you say that the president - that this is really politically tricky terrain for the president. You're saying that, you know, outreach is very important. That even though a majority of Latino voters approve of the job that the president's doing in the Democratic Party, but a much lower number has actually said they are sure they're going to vote for the president in the upcoming election in which he's already declared his candidacy. Now, why do you think that is and why do you think these two factors play together?

Prof. BARRETO: Well, you know, overall the president remains very popular, not only with Latinos, but African-Americans and others. He remains popular overall. But when it gets down to the brass tacks of assessing his policies, how they've affected these communities, we're finding that Latinos in particular are starting to show a much softer level of support than they demonstrated in 2008.

Throughout these two years, there has been fewer than expected deliveries on policy issues. I think the president would be the first to admit that. He's had a tough road. But as this continues to unfold and these cuts come forward and they affect black and Latino households disproportionately, as there's been no action on immigration reform at all, people are starting to wonder exactly what happened to some of those messages from 2008 of things like hope and change.

And so the president might need a new slogan to run on in 2012 if he wants to reenergize his base.

MARTIN: Let me ask you, Matt, why - and I'm going to ask Ron to weigh in on this - why you think is the damage here to the president? It's just also worth noting that a Gallup poll released earlier this month says that African-American approval of President Obama slipped to an all-time low to 85 percent, which is still very strong. But that's from a high of over 90 percent, which is near universal and very difficult to achieve for any political leader. So, tell me why you think that the problem is President Obama's and not the Congress.

Prof. BARRETO: Well, I think President Obama came in on a real strong sense of goodwill and high ratings. He had a democratically-controlled House and a large, large majority in the Senate. And as things started to slow down, I think he could start to make the argument that the Congress got in the way. But at the start, you know, he had a running start here with 60 votes in the Senate and a strong, strong majority in the House with Nancy Pelosi. And there just wasn't as much action on some of these items.

Some of the items that, you know, the president did attempt to reach out and negotiate with Republicans on and didn't find that those negotiations were successful. And so the president brought some of these sort of fights to himself. I think a lot of people in the African-American and Latino communities said, hey, look, you had a strong majority. You could've pursued some policies here that would've benefited the coalition. And it was seen that that perhaps was not on the top of the agenda.

MARTIN: And, Ron, finally, in the couple of minutes that we have left, talk about the deficit reduction measures the president is talking about today. He talked to congressional leaders first and then he's talking to the broader public in the middle of the day. Talk a little bit about what is anticipated and what do you think he's trying to accomplish with this next statement on deficit reduction.

ELVING: The president is going to try to stake out some middle ground between where the Republicans stand - with their do it all by cutting spending viewpoint and talk only about spending, never about programs. Republicans don't talk about cutting programs, they talk about cutting spending, as though spending were something apart from actual programs that do any good for anybody. So he wants not to be associated with that. He wants to distance himself from the Paul Ryan budget for 2012, which privatizes Medicare and which makes a state grant program out of Medicaid.

And he wants to say, yes, we need to restrain the long-term growth of entitlement spending, that's Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. But we need to do it in a fair way and we need to bring in the entire other half of the equation, which the Republicans quite pointedly exclude, which is, tax increases, revenue improvements, something to bring in more money.

And the president will say he has always supported higher income taxes on people who make more than $250,000 a year. He gave up on that in December and gave them a two-year extension on the tax cut for that group, but he's going to come back at that. He's going to come back at that and say, if you're serious about deficit reduction, that's the first place you go. And with respect to Social Security, the easiest way to make it solvent again is to raise that income limit. Right now you stop paying Social Security taxes that at $106,000 a year, the president's going to try to raise that.

MARTIN: Ron Elving is NPR's supervising senior Washington editor. He covers all things politics here at NPR News. He joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thanks, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you.

MARTIN: Matt Barreto is a professor of political science at the University of Washington and a pollster at Latino Decisions. He's also director of the Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, and he was kind enough to join us from his home office in Seattle. Matt, thank you so much for joining us.

Prof. BARRETO: Sure thing, Michel.

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