Is Obama Budget Bad News For Communities Of Color?

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President Obama's budget has come under fire from both sides of the political aisle. Republicans say the 2012 budget is short on spending cuts while Democrats complain that some cuts go too far. To understand how the budget, and Republican budget proposals, might affect communities of color, Host Michel Martin speaks with Michael Fauntroy, George Mason University associate professor of public policy and Ron Christie, Republican political strategist.


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

On the program today, we're going to talk about big budgets and little budgets. We'll hear from two of our personal finance regulars to talk about whether family budgets actually work. Some people now say that they actually don't work so well. And if they don't, then what?

But first, we're going to talk about a showdown looming in Washington over the trillion dollar-plus budget. That's the big budget offered up this week by President Obama. Republicans say it doesn't cut expenses nearly enough, but many Democrats are upset over deep cuts to some favorite programs.

We wanted to talk more about this, the budget in general, but in particular how some of the cuts proposed by both President Obama and congressional Republicans might affect specific communities. So we've invited two guests to join us. Michael Fauntroy is an associate professor of public policy at George Mason University. One of his books is called "Republicans and the Black Vote."

Ron Christie is with once again, also. He's a former special assistant to President George W. Bush. He's now the CEO of Christie Strategies.

Thank you both so much for joining us once again.

Mr. RON CHRISTIE (CEO, Christie Strategies): It's always a pleasure.

Professor MICHAEL FAUNTROY (Public Policy, George Mason University): Thanks for having me. Yeah.

MARTIN: I'd like to start with a short clip from the news conference that President Obama held on Tuesday, where he addressed some questions regarding his budget. Here it is.

President BARACK OBAMA: What my budget does is to put forward some tough choices, some significant spending cuts so that by the middle of this decade, our annual spending will match our annual revenues. We will not be adding more to the national debt.

MARTIN: So, Michael, I'd like to start with you. Now, there's obviously an annual dance around the budget. You know, by definition, it's a negotiation, you know, with all parties. But he seems to be particularly - coming under particular fire from all sides this year. And I'd like to ask you to start with - what are progressives upset about in this budget?

Prof. FAUNTROY: Excuse me. I think some of that has to do with the overall context in which this budget is offered. You know, there's hyper-unemployment in many black and brown communities around the country. Hyper-foreclosure rates. There's a lot of economic uncertainty. And so when you add to that a budget that cuts programs that have had some attempt to target those same people in need, then that explains all of the trouble that the president's getting from his left.

Now, it's completely understandable, but it's also understandable that the times in which we now live in terms of the overall deficit picture will require some sacrifice from everyone. I think those on the left, though, are arguing, we get that, but those cuts can't be disproportionately targeted at the poor.

MARTIN: Ron, I'm going to ask you for your perspective on the president's budget, and then we'll talk about Republican proposals. You'll talk about that, and then we'll go back to Michael for his perspective on what the Republicans are saying.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, I think this is the most fiscally irresponsible budget I've ever seen. I used to work for the House Budget Committee chairman, John Kasich. And if you look...

MARTIN: Who's now the governor of Ohio.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Who's now the governor of Ohio. And you look at the president's budget, and he said in that clip, of course, that that wouldn't add - his budget wouldn't add to the deficit, that's entirely untrue. If you look at the own numbers coming out of the administration, at the end of 2012, the publicly held debt will be $12 trillion.

When the president attacks the Bush administration and says, oh, well, we inherited a mess, when Bush left office, the debt was at 5.8 trillion. So what you're talking about in the first four years of the president's administration, he will have added more money to the public debt than the United States' founding in 1789.

So when you look at fiscal responsibility - and he says that he's made tough choices. He didn't touch entitlement reform, which Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid are killing us. I think that's where the president - and the Washington Post even said - punted when he had a real opportunity to demonstrate leadership.

MARTIN: Well, on the other side of it - well, I'll just play a short clip of the Speaker of the House John Boehner. He was on Fox News last night. Here's that clip.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; Speaker of the House): I think the president has a responsibility here. He wasn't elected to just sit there in the Oval Office. He was elected to lead. And if he won't lead, we will. And I expect this spring, when we put our budget together, Paul Ryan on the Budget Committee will, in fact, put everything on the table.

MARTIN: Why haven't they done so already?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Because, actually, the statutory deadline for having a budget resolution is April 15th. The president, by law, has mandated to put forth his budget by the first week in February. And he actually missed his legal obligation and deadline. So it's not a question of Republicans not acting or not showing their cards. It's by law that the president has to come out with his budget nearly two months - three months ahead of Congress.

MARTIN: OK. Michael Fauntroy, what's your perspective on this?

Prof. FAUNTROY: Well, I would just say that doesn't mean that the Republicans have to wait until their deadline to offer their proposals. They can do that now. And while I agree - I think what Ron is saying is that everything needs to be on the table. And I agree that, you know, we got to do something with Social Security. We got to do something with Medicare, and we got to do something with Medicaid.

But having said all that, the biggest chunk of our budget, or a substantial chunk of our budget is found in the Pentagon. And I haven't seen any real sense of trying to find out places in which spending can be cut at the Pentagon. And I think until that happens, the Republicans will be hard-pressed to show that they're really serious about putting everything on the table and then making appropriate cuts from there.

Mr. CHRISTIE: And that's just what happened yesterday, my friend.

MARTIN: Ron...

Mr. CHRISTIE: The House Republicans - the leadership suffered a very embarrassing defeat when a number of the progressive Democrats joined with conservative Republicans to eliminate the F-35 fighter jet.

This was something that the Pentagon said that Secretary Gates didn't want. This is something that leadership wanted, and they said, look. Everything has to be on the table, as you said, and Jeff Flake and a number of progressives -Jeff Flake, a very conservative Republican, joined the progressives to say, let's take some of that money out of the Pentagon and let's put it back into some of the programs that we need, like the Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program and some of the programs like the Legal Services Corporation that had originally been targeted. So I think the Republicans have acknowledged that we need to cut the Pentagon.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

We're speaking with Republican strategist Ron Christie and George Mason University associate professor, Michael Fauntroy. We're talking about the federal budget being - that was first put forward by the president, and now what the Republican response is likely to be. We're talking about how the budget affects the country's sort of economic circumstances in general and how it will affect communities of colors in particular.

So, well, let's - we need to talk about entitlements, because that really is kind of the - entitlements and defense really are the big items here. I'll just play a short clip of Representative Paul Ryan, chair of the House Budget Committee. Many people will have seen him. He offered the official Republican response to the State of the Union. This is from an interview with Politico's Mike Allen.

Representative PAUL RYAN (Republican, Wisconsin; Chairman, House Budget Committee): If you want to be serious about getting this debt under control, growing the economy, creating jobs and giving our children a better future, you've got to deal with the debt. And if you want to deal with the debt, you got to deal with the drivers of our debt. And the drivers of our debt are the entitlement programs. And the point I keep trying to make is the sooner we act to reform and save these programs, the better off everybody's going to be.

MARTIN: You know, there's - the president's come under some criticism for not taking on entitlements, like, in this - as part of his budget package. But there are those who say, you know, politically, you know, why should he do that? When he went forward on health care, you know, he just allowed himself to get sort of chewed up. So why not make sure that both sides are coming to the table at the same time?

So, Michael, what do you say about that?

Prof. FAUNTROY: Well, I would say a few things. One, this is the first step in a long process that's going to go throughout the rest of this fiscal year, and setting up the budget for the fiscal year of 2012. And it's in the president's interest, in my opinion, to leave some things yet to be discussed at some point down the line. So I don't have a major problem with that at this point.

I am certain - and based on what I've seen the president say over the course of the last few days - that they've already begun to look at trying to find out where they can make cuts and entitlements.

You know, it's also a politically difficult issue, because anytime you talk about Social Security, people get concerned. Now, I'm not near retirement age, so it's easy for me to say, well, you know, we probably need to cut benefits and raise the retirement age. But the president and Republican leaders are going to be hard pressed to say that or at least pass a budget that includes that reality. And so for me the president's probably better suited to let the Republicans buy in in more than just a lip service.

MARTIN: Ron, let's talk about the politics on the Republican side. I mean, on the one hand, yes, many people would argue they've already shifted the conversation to cutting spending, which is already a political victory because they're playing on their turf. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who are already in a lot of pain. The unemployment rate is already extremely high, not just in communities of color, but across the country; one out of ten Americans out of work.

Is there any concern on the Republican side that even if this makes sense as a long-term strategy, there's still short-term pain for Republicans if they're seen as just too insensitive to the plight of people suffering right now?

Mr. CHRISTIE: I don't think so. I think it's what the exchange that Michael and I just had a few moments ago that Republicans recognize that some of the cuts would disproportionately impact low income folks. If you're talking about heating assistance programs, you're talking about programs that are targeted for people who are most at need.

But what I think that we really need to talk about - and I'm thrilled. If it's one thing that we've seen, you've seen progressive Democrats, you've seen President Obama talking about the need to put our fiscal house in order, I just wish that in his budget, the president had his own deficit commission that came out with a report late last year, and they said that we needed to at least $4 trillion of reductions in spending over the next 10 years and the president's budget had 1.1, but yet he's going to add more than his savings over 10 years in his budget this year.

And as we look at entitlements, Michel, I think it would be fantastic -everything has to be on the table. It'll be fantastic for the Republicans to issue a budget in April that puts everything on the table, that talks about means testing for Social Security, that talks about looking at the - raising the income levels, as well as the age in which people can get benefits.

We have to be serious of where we are in the country and everybody has to have some skin in the game. And that's what I'm hopeful the Republicans will do to be perceived as being on the right track of dealing with all Americans regardless of their income.

MARTIN: And, Michael, final thought from you?

Prof. FAUNTROY: Well, I would just say, that gets me back to this whole notion of the context in which we are existing. You mentioned one out of ten people are currently unemployed. That's the official number. The actual number is far worse. And in African-American communities and Latino communities across the country, in some places the number is at least double that.

So, you know, the needs on paper to make reductions are clear and unambiguous. But the needs of people, poor people across this country is also clear and unambiguous. And I just don't know that we can make these cuts and continue to allow people to suffer when there's so much pain out there right now.

MARTIN: And I gave Michael the first word, so, Ron, I'm going to give you the last word. In balancing the needs of right now versus the long-term fiscal health, you know, of the country, how do you avoid making a class argument that, you know, we're sacrificing that people who are suffering now for the sake of, sort of, the long-term benefit in the future, the people who aren't likely to feel that immediate pain? How do you have that conversation politically without reverting to a class warfare, which some people feel?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Sure. Well, since President Obama has come into office, his budgets over the last two years have increased on average domestic discretionary spending by 20 percent each year. So, some of the programs that we're talking about have had a 40 percent increase in their funding levels since 2008. I think that what the president and Republicans need to do is find a way to make sure that the safety net for those most at risk is kept intact, but at the same time looking forward to the future and cutting spending so that we can back on fiscal sanity.

MARTIN: Ron Christie is a Republican political strategist. He's a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and a domestic policy adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. He now heads up Christie Strategies. Also with us, Michael Fauntroy, associate professor of public policy at George Mason University. One of his books is "Republicans and the Black Vote." They were both here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Gentlemen, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Prof. FAUNTROY: My pleasure.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Always a pleasure.

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