White House officials are betting heavily that President Obama’s $3.7 trillion budget looks different to people outside the Beltway than to those within it.
Obama’s budget is a high-wire balancing act of cutting and investing, but it could also be the first misstep in Obama’s run for reelection.
The criticism left Obama playing defense Tuesday at a surprise press conference where he pleaded for patience from reporters asking where the deep cuts were.
“You guys are pretty impatient,” Obama complained at a press conference that lacked a singular message to describe a complicated process. “You guys are pretty impatient,” he told reporters. “If something doesn’t happen today, then the assumption is it’s just not going to happen.”
To the side stood David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager and his new senior adviser inside the White House. As Obama castigated the Washington media, Plouffe stroked his chin, smiled and nodded.
If Plouffe looked calm, it is because the White House believes all of the complaints about Obama’s budget are coming from inside Washington.
Outside Washington, voters will see a president willing to cut programs dear to him in an effort to get fiscally tough, the White House believes.
The White House’s endgame is to use the budget to trap an aggressive yet fractured GOP, which it hopes will propose unpopular cuts and then have to defend them, officials said.
If Republicans are serious about tackling Social Security, then the White House is eager to hear their plan when House Budget Committee Chairman Paul RyanPaul RyanObama signs Puerto Rico debt bill Will Never Trump forces draft Romney to run? The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (R-Wis.) puts together his own budget proposal for fiscal 2012 later this spring.
With an eye on 2012, the White House is eager to share that plan with voters.
Plouffe and the new team at the White House are content to listen to Republicans howl about Obama’s refusal to directly attack entitlement spending. Let them put forth a budget, the White House says, and we’ll see how far they are willing to go.
“My goal here is to actually solve the problem,” Obama said of entitlement programs. “It’s not to get a good headline on the first day. My goal is that a year from now or two years from now, people will look back and say, ‘You know what? We actually started making progress on this issue.’ ”
White House officials insist that there is a long-term, politically sound plan behind the budget, and that people outside the Beltway will embrace the president for offering responsible cuts.
“The president’s budget proposal demonstrates his willingness to rise above the partisanship in the chattering class and put forward a plan that he believes is in the best interests of American families and businesses,” said one top Democrat.
“And the president is betting that those Americans, who, by the way, live outside the Beltway, will reward him for it.”
The White House is not taking criticism just from Republicans and budget hawks. Liberals are also wondering why a Democratic president who signed off on tax cuts for the rich in December is proposing to slash home heating assistance and community development block grants.
“Talk about misplaced, off-track priorities,” said Sen. Jon TesterJon TesterBernie Sanders’s awkward return to the Senate Senators roll out bipartisan gun proposal Congress should stop government hacking and protect the Fourth Amendment MORE (D-Mont.), who has his own reelection race to worry about next year. “I won’t support a budget that dumps billions of dollars into high-speed rail while cutting something as basic as heat for family homes across Montana and America.”
Yet the White House believes this criticism, too, will help Obama in 2012. What better way to attract independent voters than to be criticized by the right and the left?
Obama and his budget both count on an economic recovery in the next year, one that Republicans say he overestimates. They seem well-aware that if the people who voted for him in 2008 don’t see progress, only cuts, Obama could well watch a Republican president preparing the budget in 2013.
The White House is also conscious of a reality of presidential budgets: that they are a huge story for a day or two in the Beltway, then begin to fade away as the sausage of appropriations bills are made.
By the time appropriators in the House and Senate are through, Obama’s proposals will be shaped into something largely unrecognizable.
When that happens, the White House hopes voters will remember Obama talking about an “adult conversation” and “tough choices,” and forget the fact that his budget largely avoided them.
“So few people understand the budget,” said Larry Berman, a political science professor at the University of California-Davis. “And right now it’s all about using well-tested buzzwords on Fox and MSNBC.”
The White House sees the fight as a 15-rounder, and Tuesday’s debate was only the end of the first round.
But if the messaging doesn’t get better — and if Republicans find unified coherence of their own on a budget — Obama could well find himself beaten and bloodied with reelection right around the corner.
Youngman is the White House correspondent for The Hill. Find his column, Obama’s Bid for Reelection, on thehill.com.