Why is President Obama caterwauling against budget cuts, when he has been pushing for just such spending reductions all along? That’s the gist of an op-ed today in the Financial Times by Jeffrey Sachs, who points out that the draft budgets submitted by the president to Congress in mid-2012 targeted this year’s spending at roughly the same level as now set by the sequestration.
Mr. Obama’s budget, which was rejected unanimously by the Senate (perhaps that body’s most unifying moment of the year), demanded deep reductions in discretionary spending – a prospect at odds with Mr. Obama’s repeated calls for investments in U.S. infrastructure, education and job training.
Why has no one challenged Mr. Obama with this fact? Because it exposes what Mr. Sachs calls the president’s “Faustian pact” – campaigning on extending the Bush-era tax cuts for all but the wealthy, while at the same time promising some control over budget deficits. What Mr. Sachs declines to say is that no one ever took the president’s budgets seriously; it was unthinkable that he would push for, or Democrats would support, such restraint. Moreover, by pushing discretionary spending lower, the president could ignore the crushing pile-up of Medicare and Social Security.
Early in the Obama administration the White House projected that discretionary spending would rise relative to GDP, increasing from 7.9 percent in 2008 to 9.8 percent in 2010, propped up by the stimulus and also by the ongoing war in Afghanistan. But then the projections saw that figure decline – to 7.8 percent in 2012, 7.4 percent in 2013 and to only 6.3 percent in 2019 – the end year of the decade-long outlook.
It was not only his first budget that projected declining spending relative to GDP. Each budget since has also contained cuts. So why is the president barnstorming the country, howling about shuttered schools, criminals run amok, airplanes falling from the sky – or words to that effect?
In part, because the cuts dictated by the sequester are blunt force. There is disagreement on how much discretion the White House has in complying with the across-the-board spending reductions, but certainly the legislation is not as user-friendly as any administrator might like. On the other hand, if the president were truly alarmed about the impact of the sequester-determined cutbacks, surely he could have embraced recent legislation drawn up by the House that allows him more latitude in complying with the earlier agreement.
Also, President Obama finds himself with another satisfying opportunity to blast a weakened Republican party. He may hope that anger over the failure to resolve yet another budget issue will bolster Democrat prospects going into the 2014 election cycle; he also may just be following his instincts. The hallmark of this presidency has been division and combat. Beltway insiders note that Mr. Obama has been unwilling and unable to work with legislators – including with Democrats. He is not a good negotiator, as has been widely reported. The president likes the campaign trail, where every encounter is scripted, no one talks back and the teleprompter is ever-ready. He likes to lecture and admonish.
The economy is not doing well, and President Obama sees an ongoing opportunity to blame the GOP for our continued slow growth and high jobless rate. By exaggerating the negative impact of spending cuts, he can make Republicans out to be villains, instead of owning up to his own failed policies.