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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Budget Struggle Begins

With the release of the president’s FY 2012 budget today, what promises to be a proctracted struggle between the White House and House Republicans (with no telling how many side-struggles involving Senate Democrats and progressive Democrats) over the size and shape of the federal budget.
There’s already some understandable progressive angst over the way the president has positioned himself for this fight–proposing his own five-year freeze of nondefense discretionary spending, and offering specific cuts to programs that are by no means useless or counterproductive (e.g., low-income heating assistance). Why not just refuse to concede anything on the domestic spending front and start the battle on more neutral ground?
That strategy would be based on the assumption that both sides will eventually meet in the middle on budgetary issues, making the starting point extraordinarily important. I suspect the White House believes public opinion will matter a great deal in the resolution of the budget battle, and wants its initial offer to be credible, not just as far away from the GOP’s as is possible. Before dismissing his approach as excessively conciliatory, It should be kept in mind that Obama has refused to make any concessions on “entitlement reform,” despite the recommendations of his own deficit commission; this is the concession Republicans desperately want, because they are afraid to “go there” without bipartisan cover. This dynamic, along with the decision GOPers have made to focus not on the actual overall federal budget, but on the discretionary spending contained in the continuing resolution due to expire on March 4, is what has made it necessary for Republicans to propose specific and draconian cuts to popular programs. Thanks in part to Obama’s tactics, they’ve exposed themselves to the characterization of their position well explained by the title of a Jonathan Cohn post at TNR: “Good Bye Big Bird. Hello E. Coli.”
The more immediate problem for Obama is that he has proposed his own nondefense discretionary spending cuts in order to protect “investments”–some in infrastrucure programs, most in education–that requiring spending increases. He began making the economic case for these investments in his State of the Union Address. But he’s got a long way to go before convincing sizable majorities of the public that they are essential to the immediate task of creating jobs and reducing epidemic levels of income inequality.

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