President Obama returns to the White House from a budget-related photo op in Baltimore, Monday, Feb. 14, 2011.
President Obama returns to the White House from a budget-related photo op in Baltimore, Monday, Feb. 14, 2011. Charles Dharapak/AP
A president's budget should always be read first as a political document and no more so than when that president is running for re-election.
So President Obama's goal was to practice the political version of the physician's Hippocratic Oath: First do no harm to your chances of winning a second term.
So while critics can accuse him of spending too much or cutting too little, Obama is aiming for the golden mean that lets him portray himself as both fiscally responsible and possessing what the first President Bush called the "vision thing." That's what Obama is going for with his calls for Americans to out-educate, out-innovate and out-build its economic competition, to have a Sputnik moment.
Some critics are disappointed the president didn't embrace his fiscal responsibility commission's recommendation to rein in Social Security and Medicare.
But proposing that money be cut from entitlement programs is definitely not something White House political consultants would typically recommend. So, not surprisingly, that didn't wind up in the president's budget.
Again, a budget is meant to help a president contrast himself with the opposition. It's not a suicide pact.
Over at The Fiscal Times, Eric Piannin and Merrill Goozner laid out some of the political realities facing the president:
Despite pleas from members of his own deficit commission and other deficit hawks on Capitol Hill to address the long term structural deficit, the administration concluded there was no political upside to tackling tax and entitlement reform in his budget, giving Republicans and other administration critics an opportunity to go after him without putting down their own proposals for long-term deficit and debt.
Moreover, the administration would pay a huge political price for compromising on Social Security. Liberals and organized labor are already mounting a grass roots campaign to fight changes in eligibility, although they do support increasing the ceiling on wages subject to payroll taxes from the current $106,800 to $180,000, which the administration briefly considered after it was proposed by the fiscal commission.
Alice Rivlin, a member of the fiscal commission and a former Clinton administration budget director who had hoped for major proposals on entitlements and tax reform, said that Obama's decision to skirt those issues for now was a smart tactical move. "The history of the last two years is that everything the president is for, the Republicans immediately attack and say they're against–the clearest example being health care reform," she said. "So if you're working in that atmosphere, I think you have to figure out how am I going to get bipartisan cover."