Barack Obama rolled out his new $3.8 trillion budget Monday, trying to
balance the August debt accords against his own judgment that too much
austerity, too fast will spell trouble for the economy — and his own
reelection chances in November.
From Justice to Defense and Homeland Security, as many as six
Cabinet-level departments or agencies will see their budgets shrink in
compliance with the new appropriations caps. But Obama would also go
outside the box, committing tens of billions of dollars to new
mandatory spending initiatives and for the first time, tapping war
savings to fund his domestic agenda.
"We can't cut back on those things that are important for us to grow,"
the president told students in Northern Virginia, highlighting the
budget's new $8 billion plan to help community colleges partner with
industry as training centers for a new generation of skilled workers.
Within the Energy Department, he wants a $6 billion HomeStar rebate
proposal to reward homeowners who retrofit their property. And
elsewhere the budget includes a pair of $1 billion commitments to
promote advanced electrical vehicles and develop a network of
manufacturing innovation institutes.
Perhaps, the biggest single item is an ambitious $476 billion,
six-year transportation package — a nearly 50 percent increase over
current spending that is largely financed by plowing back $231 billion
of savings attributed to scaling back U.S. military operations in Iraq
This novel scheme avoids any unpopular increase in federal gasoline
taxes, just as Obama wants to minimize any increase for middle-class
households, whose spending he needs for the economy. That leaves the
wealthy as his primary target, and the president appears more
aggressive in targeting dividend income as well as exclusions for
employee retirement contributions.
Even so, the president is hard-pressed to make much headway on the
deficit without taking on benefit programs like Medicare and Medicaid
or accepting some increase in middle-class tax rates.
As it is, the extension of special middle-class protections under the
alternative minimum tax costs him $1.9 trillion — almost as much as
the additional $2.17 trillion attributed to his keeping the Bush-era
tax cuts for middle- and working-class families, due to expire next
year. Add these two decisions together, and it's enough to eat up all
of the $3.17 trillion in new deficit reduction that Obama musters in
The bottom line, then, is a fourth straight year of $1 trillion-plus
deficits and only marginal improvement in 2013 when the shortfall will
narrow to $901 billion — still a far cry from what Obama had promised
when he took office in 2009.
Indeed, even if Obama were to win a second term and prevail on his
entire tax agenda, the budget tables show that the deficit won't fall
back below 3 percent of GDP until 2018 — after he will have left the
Republicans were scathing in their reaction. "Today we are witnessing
one of the most spectacular fiscal cover-ups in American history,"
said Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, ranking member on the Senate Budget
Committee. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)
dismissed the president's efforts as a "recipe for a debt crisis and
the decline of America."
In response, a senior administration official told POLITICO that those
who complain loudest should be cautious about what they ask for.
"You talk to any number of economists, and there is not a lot of
clamor for the U.S. to slam on the brakes in 2012 or in 2013," he
said. "It would hurt not just our economy but also Europe. There will
be a chorus of complaints, but if you really were to follow through on
what is said, it would do more damage.
"I've been on the fiscal conservative side of these arguments. It's
easy to say 'We should take our medicine now.'" But sometimes taking
too much medicine, or the wrong kind, does more harm."
However slow, the downward path to less than 3 percent of GDP is
credible, the official argued. And in designing that path, he said,
the White House looked for a formula where deficits would not suddenly
spike up again in the future.
That said, it is an election year, and Obama plainly constructed his
budget to light a spark after all the economic troubles of recent
"It's morning again in America," was Ronald Reagan's pitch seeking a
second term after hard times in the 1980s. Obama's own narrative
leapfrogs back to the post-World War II era, evoking the glory years
of American manufacturing and a period when the GI Bill embodied a
confidence in education and a shared sense of opportunity to move up
"America was built on the idea that anyone who is willing to work hard
and play by the rules, can make if they try — no matter where they
started out," Obama says, in his opening budget message to Congress.
"But for many Americans (today), the basic bargain at the heart of the
American dream has eroded."
The two most immediate flash points with Republicans will be the
question of war savings and taxes.
From the administration's standpoint, Obama has taken some risk to
himself by pushing ahead with the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and his
plan to bring home American forces from Afghanistan as well. As a
result, the annual Overseas Contingency Operations appropriations,
which totaled $145.9 billion for the two wars when Obama took office,
will drop to $96.7 billion in 2013 — a one-third reduction.
Over 10 years, the president's budget is assuming $848 billion in
savings, half of which he would count toward deficit reduction. But
Obama appears to want to keep the second half at his disposal to
finance new investments in transportation, and the first $231 billion
down payment for the six-year bill could then grow.
In the case of taxes, the budget never spells out Obama's
much-talked-about "Buffett rule" — under which the wealthy must pay an
effective tax rate of at least 30 percent. But his long-term deficit
reduction plan rests very much on achieving $1.43 trillion in 10-year
revenue increases at the households with annual income of more than
$250,000. And the avid presidential golfer even throws in an
additional $593 million proposal to do away with tax deductions for
conservation easements on golf courses.
Just two years ago, Obama was content to let the tax rate on dividends
and capital gains — now 15 percent — continue to enjoy some preference
at a 20 percent rate. But his budget now assumes $206 billion in
10-year revenues from treating dividends as ordinary income subject to
top-end rates twice as high.
As recently as last fall, the White House proposed to save $410.1
billion by limiting deductions and other preferences for the wealthy.
That portfolio has clearly grown because the budget assumes revenue
savings of $584 billion over 10 years.
Given the current impasse over Obama's payroll tax holiday, it is
significant that his budget makes clear he will not call for another
extension next winter. Experienced tax writers would argue then that
it might be better to step down the tax rate gradually in the last
quarter of this year, for example. And that could reduce the cost and
make a deal more feasible.
After the rancor of 2011, the White House and Republicans could well
fight to a draw on many of these issues in 2012 — even as each side
must look over its shoulder at the threat of a $1.2 trillion sequester
beginning in 2013 unless there is some progress on deficit reduction.
The one area where there is greater hope of real action is the
appropriations process — the dozen annual spending bills that fund the
daily operations of government. The caps agreed to last summer ensure
some predictability, and Obama's budget brings into focus how much
discretionary spending has already begun to fall and the tough choices
Just two years ago, for example, Obama was predicting domestic or
"nonsecurity" outlays in 2013 would be $477 billion. The new budget
assumes $410 billion — a real cut of 14 percent, even without
accounting for inflation.
It's an atmosphere that makes it harder for new initiatives to get any
footing — and easier for critics to justify cuts from policies they
Obama is again seeking $308 million for the Commodity Futures Trading
Commission to implement financial reforms, and this time the White
House is proposing new fees to cover the cost. The Securities and
Exchange Commission is requesting $1.566 billion, a $245 million
increase that is larger than the CFTC itself. But it stands a better
chance given the SEC's existing power to cover its costs with fees
collected from industry.
Elsewhere, the Environmental Protection Agency will be trimmed further
to $8.34 billion — its third straight series of cuts. The National
Aeronautics and Space Administration gets less this year than last.
Biomedical research funds at the National Institutes of Health are
frozen at $30.7 billion. And all the real growth in the Food and Drug
Administration's $4.48 billion budget is dependent on new industry
user fees, including a proposed $220 million food establishment charge
that could prove controversial.
The Pentagon's core budget, $514.2 billion, drops for the first time
since the 1990s. At the same time, total resources for the State
Department and foreign aid would continue to grow to $51.6 billion,
including a new $770 million Middle East and North Africa Incentive
Fund to advance democratic and economic reforms after the turmoil of
the past year.
The total $11.5 billion request for the Department of Interior, so
important to wildlife services and Western lands, is up just roughly 1
percent. By comparison, the Education and Energy departments are
Obama's Race to the Top initiative is promised $850 million, a 55
percent increase. Energy's total resources would grow by about $1.4
billion, a 5.6 percent increase that reflects a whopping $522 million
or 29 percent increase for renewable-energy sources and an additional
$174 million for a revamped industrial technology-advanced
In the science arena, NASA falls, NIH is frozen but the National
Institute of Standards and Technology is promised $860 million in
2013, a 13 percent increase owing to its emphasis on
advanced-manufacturing research. The same theme echoes in the National
Science Foundation's $7.37 billion budget, a nearly 5 percent
Inside the Health and Human Services Department, the Head Start
program for low-income preschool children must settle for a modest
plus-up. By comparison, the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services
will receive a $1 billion, 26 percent increase in its program
management funds given CMS's increased responsibilities under Obama's
health care reforms.
To be sure, there are also small surprises. After a series of costly
accidents, including a crude-oil leak into the Yellowstone Riverin
Montana last summer, the administration appears intent on putting more
money into pipeline safety. The new budget proposes an estimated $276
million for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration
including a 60 percent increase in PHMSA's pipeline safety accounts to
hire more inspectors and standardize state pipeline programs.