Budget Battle Royale

Obama’s decision to escalate the debate over the federal budget may come back to haunt him and his party

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• April 6, 2012 5:00 am


The budget battle raging in Washington, D.C., heated up this week with President Obama’s fierce, partisan attack on the House Republican budget authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.).

White House press secretary Jay Carney insisted that the president’s speech at the Associated Press luncheon on Tuesday was not a political speech but "wonky" and policy-oriented—a claim belied by the release of an official campaign video a day later attacking presumed GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and featuring excerpts of Obama’s AP address.

But, while Obama seems content to position himself for reelection as the only candidate who can thwart the Republican effort to, in his words, "impose a radical vision on our country," his decision to escalate the debate over the federal budget could come back to haunt him and his party.

Republicans claim to welcome the heightened focus on the budget debate for several reasons.

The first is that the GOP, including Romney, has rallied behind Ryan’s vision in near unanimous fashion. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats have not passed a budget in nearly three years, and the president’s budgets have been overwhelmingly rejected by Congress: 97-0 in the Senate, 414-0 in the House.

Michael Barone, a veteran political analyst and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said the lack of a viable alternative to the Ryan plan could be a political liability for Obama and other Democrats seeking reelection.

"The other side can say it’s totally irresponsible," Barone told the Washington Free Beacon. "I think that could be a good campaign tactic and it’s something I’d be fearful of. Obama attacking the Ryan budget of course raises the question of ‘what’s the alternative?’"

With the soaring national debt sure to be a central issue in the 2012 campaign—as it was in the historic GOP victory in the 2010 midterms—analysts say that Obama has failed to offer a credible solution.

The president’s 2013 budget—the most expensive in United States history—called for $47 trillion in total spending over the next decade, and would add $6.7 trillion to the federal budget deficit.

If enacted, Obama’s plan would increase the debt held by the public—the amount owed by American taxpayers—from $12.6 trillion to $19.4 trillion over that same period, a 54 percent increase.

"His proposals would barely stabilize the debt—and at too high a level," Maya MacGuineas, president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, told CNN.

Ryan’s budget, on the other hand, "puts our nation on a fiscally sustainable path," MacGuineas said in a statement.

The White House seems to acknowledge that the president does not have a plan to rein in the federal debt. Page 58 of the "Analytical Perspectives" supplement of Obama’s budget warns: "The fiscal position gradually deteriorates [after 2022]."

Secretary Treasury Timothy Geithner admitted as much during a hearing of the House Budget Committee in February.

"We’re not coming before you today to say we have a definitive solution to that long-term [debt] problem," he said. "What we do know is, we don’t like yours."

That is not a message a major political party should be eager to run on, Barone said.

"Things have changed," he said. "People have been watching the financial crisis in Europe. Where they might not have in the past, calls for fiscal responsibility carry a lot more weight."

Meanwhile, unfortunately for Obama and his Democratic colleagues, the national press is beginning to catch on. "Obama Assails Ryan Budget Without Long-Term Alternative" read one Bloomberg headline, with the accompanying lead paragraph:

President Barack Obama has rebuked Republicans for their "radical vision" of a scaled-down government and says it’s time to "get serious about the deficit." His own budget fails to do that over the long term.

Following the president’s speech on Tuesday, reporters pelted the White House with questions about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D., Nev.) refusal to offer a Democratic budget.

In a testy exchange with Fox News’ Bret Baier, White House press secretary Jay Carney failed to offer a coherent response, blaming Republicans for the lack of a bipartisan agreement.

There are indications, however, that Democrats are beginning to feel the heat on budget issues.

Having previously said the White House has "no opinion" on whether Senate Democrats passed a budget, Carney told Baier, "It is our preference that Congress work and the Senate effectively pass a budget."

With 16 Senate Democrats facing reelection in 2012, critics accuse Reid of trying to protect his colleagues from casting a series of difficult votes on politically sensitive issues like taxes, defense spending, and the controversial health care law.

Reid may find himself under increasing pressure to act when the Senate returns from recess on April 16. A recent procedural ruling from the Senate parliamentarian rejected Reid’s contention that the Budget Control Act—the debt-ceiling legislation agreed to last summer—absolved the Senate of the need to draft and pass a budget resolution as required by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974.

"It’s pretty remarkable what Senate Democrats have done," a Republican Senate aide told the Free Beacon. "They wrote language into the Budget Control Act with the clear hope that they would not have to deal with this at all. If anything, this ruling proves that we've been right all along and we clearly don't have a budget."

Another GOP aide said that while he does not expect Reid to offer a Democratic budget, Republicans plan to force a vote on the president’s budget when the Senate returns.

"Reid is in a really tough spot," said the aide. "Democrats don’t want to be embarrassed for the second year in row."

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said the Democratic waffling on the budget is indicative of the strength of Ryan’s plan.

"How good is Ryan’s plan? So good that Democrats do not believe they've got anything that could stand up against it," he told the Free Beacon. "They don't believe they can write something the American people would prefer. If they did, they would do it in a heartbeat."

If Democrats had any interest in addressing key issues like deficit reduction, tax reform and entitlement reform, Norquist said, they would have done so between 2009 and 2010, when they enjoyed complete control of Congress.

"Democrats really don’t have any moral authority or seriousness to criticize Ryan when they haven't written anything down themselves," he said. "All these things they now claim they’re dying to do, they could have done in 2009."

Republicans say they would be more than happy to pit their budget against a viable Democratic alternative.

"It’s very easy to attack our budget’s reforms in the absence of something to compare it to, and if you pretend like everything is going to keep going along and be fine," a House GOP aide told the Free Beacon.  "If you have an actual liberal plan to judge our budget against—the massive tax increases and defense cuts that will actually be required without reform—nobody wants those things to happen."

The Democrats seem to be banking on their ability to convince the voting public that the Republicans would slash government spending to dangerously low levels and promote policies that, in the president’s words, are "antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility."

Far from being disheartened or scared off, however, Republicans have been galvanized. The latest example: Obama’s recent efforts to make the GOP budget a centerpiece of the 2012 campaign has increased speculation that the Ryan would make an ideal candidate for vice president.

"Obama wants to run on paragraphs and slogans—hope and change—instead of actual legislative language," Norquist said. "People let you get away with that the first time, I don’t think they will a second time. At some point you have to govern."