The average citizen can be excused for not taking President Obama’s proposed budget seriously. That’s because serious lawmaking is not what is happening in Washington these days.
Instead, the budget must be viewed in two ways: as an actual policy proposal and as yet another feint in the duel for power between Republicans and Democrats.
There is a strong case to be made that the idea receiving the most attention in Obama’s budget — the chained CPI — would be an unwelcome burden that retired Americans should not have to bear. It is a new way of calculating inflation that would slow the increase in payments going to Social Security recipients to adjust for inflation.
The reaction to Obama’s budget suggests it is being viewed less as a serious policy proposal and more as the latest round in the budget battles that have paralyzed Washington in recent years. Republicans have been slow to embrace the chained CPI even though it represents the kind of entitlement reform they say they want. They are refusing to accept Obama’s reforms for two reasons: They include new tax increases, which they say they will never accept, and they want to use Obama’s proposals against Democrats in 2014.
Democrats who buy into Obama’s restraints on Social Security can expect to be pilloried from the left for cutting spending that supports the elderly and the disabled and from the right for doing what it is always dangerous to do, even though it is something you say you support: cutting Social Security.
It appears that despite Obama’s gesture of compromise the Republicans remain locked into an attitude of permanent rejectionism. In fact, Obama may have offered his compromise, not because he believed Republicans would accept it but because he knew they would not. If Sen. Bernard Sanders and other leftists pile on with criticism that Obama has sold out seniors, they may burnish Obama’s image among middle-of-the-road voters as a moderate seeking pragmatic solutions. And if Republicans continue to reject what they say they want, voters in 2014 may decide that it no longer makes sense to elect Republicans to Congress.
Rep. Paul Ryan, the House’s budget writer, said he thought that Obama’s budget was an “olive branch,” but that didn’t mean he would be willing to accept the tax hikes that were part of it. To Ryan, “olive branch” apparently means an early sign of surrender. But Obama does not appear to be intimidated by Republicans any longer. His administration made clear that his budget proposal was not a first offer that would be a prelude to acceptance of Republican demands. In Obama’s framing of the budget, this was it. You are willing to compromise or you are not.
The Republicans have been saying they are not willing. They gave in on taxes at the beginning of the year, allowing taxes to rise on wealthy taxpayers to avoid the fiscal cliff. In their view that was all the compromise they had in them. They don’t see compromise as a way of doing business, as it has been throughout our history, but as a concession squeezed out of them under duress, and only once, if possible.
Obama is wielding power this year as if he understands that he is engaged in a constant battle. His aggressiveness on gun safety is justified on the merits, but it also has the advantage of putting Republicans on the defensive. That is the way Republicans under George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich played the game. Unless the Republicans show they are willing to give, it will force Obama only to take — take what he can in whatever arena he can manage to press the fight.
That is not the kind of leader Obama set out to be. He came to office in 2009 as a conciliator. Republican nihilism has forced him to play more aggressively, which is why his budget proposal is designed as much to score points as to make policy.
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