The Robin Hood Budget

By Dan Froomkin
1:55 PM ET, 02/26/2009

President Obama today unveiled a fiscal year 2010 budget proposal that is dazzling both in the scale of its ambitions and its deficits. It is also the most detailed blueprint yet for the profound course-change that Obama promised in his campaign.

White House budget director Peter Orszag describes the budget proposal to reporters this morning. (Bill O'Leary/Post)

"You know, there are times where you can afford to redecorate your house and there are times where you need to focus on rebuilding its foundation," Obama said this morning "Today, we have to focus on foundations."

What he didn't mention was that he was also ripping out some of the foundations that were laid by the previous administration.

Obama's budget would dramatically increase taxes on the wealthy, while cutting payments and subsidies to insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, agribusiness and defense contractors -- and mandating a system to charge polluters for their carbon emissions.

It would, in short, reverse the redistribution of wealth that took place during the Bush era. This time, the rich will be subsidizing the poor, not the other way around.

The revenue increases -- supplemented by staggering deficit spending -- would pay for tax cuts for non-wealthy Americans and hugely ambitious plans in the areas of energy, health and education that, as Obama insisted on Tuesday night are necessary to assure the country's long-term prosperity.

Realizing they had some explaining to do, Obama's budget team points the finger at the last guys: "[F]or far too long, the resilience, optimism, and industriousness of the American people have been frustrated by irresponsible policy choices in Washington," the budget document says.

"Prudent investments in education, clean energy, health care, and infrastructure were sacrificed for huge tax cuts for the wealthy and well-connected. In the face of these trade-offs, Washington has ignored the squeeze on middle-class families that is making it harder for them to get ahead. Our Government has spent taxpayer money without making sure the numbers add up and without making it clear and understandable to the American people where their money was being spent. Tough choices have been avoided, and we have failed to make the wise investments we need to compete in a global, information-age economy....

"This is the legacy that we inherit — a legacy of mismanagement and misplaced priorities, of missed opportunities and of deep, structural problems ignored for too long. It’s a legacy of irresponsibility, and it is our duty to change it."

The projected deficits are nothing short of astronomical. The budget assumes a $1.75 trillion deficit this year. And while annual deficits would drop to $533 billion in 2013, they would then start going up again (although they would stay basically flat as a percentage of gross domestic product). The national debt, which went up from $7 trillion to $10 trillion in the Bush era, would be $20 trillion in 2016.

The scale of just about everything in this budget will inevitably lead many in Washington to suggest with increasing alarm that Obama is trying to do too much, too fast. (It begins.) They may be right. But they should also ask: Is Obama right that doing less is actually more risky? Isn't this what the voters elected him to do? And does the fractured, already marginalized Republican party really want to define itself as the party of tax breaks for the rich and the special interests?

Lori Montgomery has the big numbers on washingtonpost.com: "President Obama's proposed budget includes an additional $250 billion that could be used to bail out struggling banks this year, bringing the expected 2009 budget deficit to a soaring $1.75 trillion, officials said this morning. The government's yearly shortfall would equal 12.3 percent of the nation's annual economic output, a level not seen in generations."

Jackie Calmes and Robert Pear have the big picture on nytimes.com: "By redirecting enormous streams of deficit spending toward programs like health care, education and energy, and paying for some of it through taxes on the rich, pollution surcharges, and cuts in such inviolable programs as farm subsidies, the $3.55 trillion spending plan Mr. Obama is undertaking signals a radical change of course that Congress has yet to endorse."

Bloomberg's Ryan J. Donmoyer looks at the revenue side: "President Barack Obama proposed almost $1 trillion in higher taxes on the 2.6 million highest- earning Americans, Wall Street financiers, U.S.-based multinational corporations, and oil companies, to pay for permanent breaks for lower earners....

"The tax increases, which Obama vowed to implement as a presidential candidate, would be the first on high-income earners since 1993 and would reverse a course set by Bush of lowering the tax burden on the nation’s wealthiest people.

"'It’s a clear repudiation of Bush’s policy,' said Peter Morici, an economist at the University of Maryland in College Park. 'It’s more Obama Robin Hood.'"

Noam N. Levey writes in the Los Angeles Times that with this budget, Obama is "[m]aking good on populist rhetoric he has employed since he was a candidate."

Ceci Connolly writes in The Washington Post about how "Obama is proposing to begin a vast expansion of the U.S. health-care system by creating a $634 billion reserve fund over the next decade, launching an overhaul that most experts project will ultimately cost at least $1 trillion.

"The 'reserve fund' in the budget proposal being released today is Obama's attempt to demonstrate how the country could extend health insurance to millions more Americans and at the same time begin to control escalating medical bills that threaten the solvency of families, businesses and the government."

Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson write in The Washington Post: "A mandatory cap on the nation's greenhouse gas emissions, which President Obama embraced on Tuesday as central to his domestic agenda, would be designed to generate badly needed revenue for the government while addressing arguably the world's most pressing environmental issue....

"[O]nly hours after Obama's speech Tuesday to Congress, the cap-and-trade proposal triggered a heated exchange among senators on a key committee, underscoring that efforts to come up with a system that limits emissions, puts a price on carbon and allows industries to trade pollution allowances will be a difficult sell on Capitol Hill, especially in the current economic crisis.

"A federal cap-and-trade program, which many scientific and policy experts see as key to curbing dangerous levels of global warming, would create a new commodity -- in the form of the allowances permitting industries to discharge specified amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere -- and a market for that commodity that would be worth tens or perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars, along with a complex new regulatory system."

Congressional Republicans are already gearing up against Obama's agenda.

Jackie Kucinich writes for Roll Call (subscription required): "Determined to present a unified front against the White House and a Democratic-run Congress, Republicans plan to use the budget release today to kick off a five-week campaign that will highlight areas where they believe the administration’s blueprint is flawed.

"A senior GOP aide said the campaign would include the circulation of coordinated talking points and the melding of the documents from the House and Senate Budget panels and Republican Conference committees."

But it may be asking too much even of Democrats.

Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post that Obama's agenda "confronts the era's most intractable problems, from a tattered financial system that has helped fuel a deepening recession to health-care, education and energy policies that have long defied meaningful reform.

"It amounts to a long work order for a legislature that has seen its productivity sag in recent years. Mired in partisan divisions, Congress has produced few bills of sweeping impact since the end of President George W. Bush's first term. Now Obama is asking lawmakers to deliver legislation on the scale of the No Child Left Behind education bill or the Medicare prescription drug benefit -- two of Bush's signature achievements -- roughly once a month....

"Many Democrats have expressed trepidation about the lofty expectations that Obama has set and are keenly aware that the party could pay a steep price in the 2010 midterm elections if the promises are not fulfilled. At a White House meeting yesterday with House and Senate leaders, Obama noted that polls showed the Democratic Congress's popularity rising with the passage of the stimulus bill, despite Republicans' near-unanimous opposition because of the package's heavy spending programs."

Obama's speech Tuesday continues to elicit reaction.

Joe Klein writes for Time: "Let it be recorded that Barack Obama came into full possession of the U.S. presidency toward the end of his February 24 budget speech to a joint session of Congress. He had just read a letter from a South Carolina schoolgirl, pleading for help with her dilapidated school. 'We are not quitters,' the girl had written. The President's eyes brightened as he repeated that phrase, and he seemed barely able to control his joy and confidence as he attacked his peroration: that even in the toughest times, 'there is a generosity, a resilience, a decency and a determination that perseveres.' This was the chord that had been missing in the first dour month of Obama's presidency — not so much optimism as confidence, the sense that he was not only steering the presidency, but loving the challenge of it."

Obama seems to have lost David S. Broder, who writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Is he naive? Does he not understand the political challenge he is inviting?...

"The size of the gambles that President Obama is taking every day is simply staggering. What came through in his speech to a joint session of Congress and a national television audience Tuesday night was a dramatic reminder of the unbelievable stakes he has placed on the table in his first month in office, putting at risk the future well-being of the country and the Democratic Party's control of Washington....

"When we elected Obama, we didn't know what a gambler we were getting."

And William Kristol, in his Washington Post opinion column, calls for obstructionism and delay: "Conservatives and Republicans...should do their best not to permit Obama to rush his agenda through this year. They can't allow Obama to make of 2009 what Franklin Roosevelt made of 1933 or Johnson of 1965. Slow down the policy train. Insist on a real and lengthy debate. Conservatives can't win politically right now. But they can raise doubts, they can point out other issues that we can't ignore (especially in national security and foreign policy), they can pick other fights -- and they can try in any way possible to break Obama's momentum. Only if this happens will conservatives be able to get a hearing for their (compelling, in my view) arguments against big-government, liberal-nanny-state social engineering -- and for their preferred alternatives."

Iraq Watch

By Dan Froomkin
1:20 PM ET, 02/26/2009

Ann Scott Tyson and Anne E. Kornblut wrote in yesterday's Washington Post: "President Obama is expected to announce as early as Friday that he will remove all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by August 2010, three months later than promised during his campaign, U.S. officials said."

Reuters reports: "President Barack Obama will deliver an address on Friday on 'the way forward' in Iraq, officials said, in which he is widely expected to announce steps to begin pulling U.S. combat troops out of Iraq.

"'We're keeping a campaign commitment,' Vice President Joe Biden told NBC television in an interview on Wednesday when asked the substance of Obama's address at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina.

"'I think the American public will...understand exactly what we're doing and I think they'll be pleased,' Biden said."

Peter Baker and Thom Shanker write in the New York Times: "President Obama’s planned Iraq troop drawdown would leave the bulk of American forces in place until early next year while some combat units would remain in place in new roles even beyond a declared August 2010 target for withdrawal, administration officials said Wednesday.

"The plan would maintain relatively high troop levels through Iraq’s parliamentary elections, to be held in December, before beginning in earnest to meet the August 2010 target for removing combat forces, the officials said. Even after August 2010, as many as 50,000 of the 142,000 troops now in Iraq would remain, including some combat units reassigned as 'Advisory Training Brigades' or 'Advisory Assistance Brigades,' the administration and Pentagon officials said.

"Mr. Obama consistently said during his campaign that he would leave a residual force for training, protection and counterterrorism missions. But the gradual pace of his withdrawal — spread out over 19 months, instead of the 16 months he promised during the campaign — and the possible size of the remaining force left some Democrats discouraged, while some Republicans cautioned against moving too quickly. The administration intends to call those remaining troops a 'transition force.'"

Thinkprogress.org shows House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow show yesterday expressing doubt that so many soldiers will still be necessary in the long run: "I don’t know the justification is for a presence of 50,000 troops in Iraq. I do think that there is a need for some, and I don’t know that all of them have to be in the country. They can be platformed outside.…I would think one-third of that, maybe 20,000, maybe more than one-third, 15,000 or 20,000."

Bush Watch

By Dan Froomkin
1:18 PM ET, 02/26/2009

Thomas M. Defrank and David Saltonstall write in the New York Daily News: "President George W. Bush may have left office with a historically bad 22% approval rating, but he's still eager to impart his wisdom - for $150,000 a speech.

"The former president will charge that hefty fee per pep talk - plus first-class or private jet transport for four - when he hits the lecture circuit next month with stopovers in Canada, the U.S. and other spots around the globe, sources told The News."

Kevin Sherrington blogs for the Dallas Morning News about Bush's visit yesterday to an elementary school in his new Dallas neighborhood.

"The Bushes were scheduled to visit three classes, but they ended up popping in on any room with an audience.

"Ducking in one room, Bush asked, 'Hey kids, do you know who I am?'

"Gasps all around, and then someone blurted, 'George Washington!'

"'That's right!' the visitor said. 'George Washington Bush!'

"Well, the middle initial was the same, anyway.

"A little later, at an ESL class, Bush tried introducing himself in Spanish. Only it was a little too West Texas for the Spanish speakers. He tried again. Blank looks. Even held up three fingers. You know, a 'W.' Still nothing.

"Finally, Pershing's innovative, energetic principal, Margie Hernandez, stepped in with a Spanish introduction....

"Once he finished his tour, he addressed a school assembly, where he related his favorite question of the morning:

"'Why did you come here?'

"Bush told the kids he came because he saw signs that welcomed him, and it made him feel good, and he wanted to say thanks....

"He seemed to have such a good time that I told him we could use him for the Dad's Club Haunted House.

"'I'd make a good ghost,' he said, grinning."

Rove Watch

By Dan Froomkin
1:16 PM ET, 02/26/2009

Karl Rove writes in his Wall Street Journal opinion column that President Obama is guilty of using "the lazy rhetorical device of 'straw men.'"

Obama "routinely ascribes to others views they don't espouse and says opposition to his policies is grounded in views no one really advocates," Rove writes.

He's not entirely wrong, although several of the "straw men" he cites -- for instance, Obama's assertion that in the Bush era "a surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy" -- are not straw men at all. They're supportable statements.

But that's not the point. The point is Rove's chutzpah.

As Frank James blogs for Tribune: "In a June 2006 speech to conservatives, [Rove] erected one of the most infamous straw men of modern times. He said: 'Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers.In the wake of 9/11, conservatives believed it was time to unleash the might and power of the United States military against the Taliban; in the wake of 9/11, liberals believed it was time to... submit a petition. I am not joking."

Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon: "Karl Rove's entire strategy for the Bush presidency was grounded in straw men accusations."

See also this September 2006 column of mine and my Straw Man Watch items from the Bush era.

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
1:15 PM ET, 02/26/2009

Joby Warrick writes in The Washington Post: "The daily White House intelligence report that catalogs the top security threats to the nation has a grim new addition, reflecting the realities of the age: a daily update on the global financial crisis and its cascading effects on the stability of countries through the world."

James Kuhnhenn writes for the Associated Press: "After devoting money and time in search of a rescue for the ailing banking sector, President Barack Obama on Wednesday demanded tough new regulations to keep financial institutions in check and avoid future Wall Street meltdowns."

David Lightman writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The day after President Barack Obama told Congress that it would have to 'sacrifice some worthy priorities for which there are no dollars,' the House of Representatives passed a massive budget bill Wednesday that increases spending by 8 percent over last year....Obama has tried to distance himself from the bill. He didn't mention it in his address Tuesday and has repeatedly criticized earmarks, local projects that lawmakers insert into such measures without review. This bill contains about 9,000 such earmarks, at a total of about $3.8 billion."

Luke Baker writes for Reuters: "Abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay has worsened sharply since President Barack Obama took office as prison guards 'get their kicks in' before the camp is closed, according to a lawyer who represents detainees."

William Glaberson writes in the New York Times that 20 men still imprisoned in Guantanamo despite having been declared in court not to be enemies of the United States "are now appealing directly to President Obama, arguing that the federal habeas corpus cases allowed by the Supreme Court decision are failing to deliver the only justice that matters: freedom."

Carrie A. Johnson writes for The Washington Post: "Two days after returning from a trip to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told reporters this afternoon that he remains determined to shutter the scandal-plagued facility within a year, despite a series of legal and diplomatic hurdles in his path."

William McCall writes for the Associated Press: "For the second time since Attorney General Eric Holder ordered a review of Bush administration state secrets claims, the Obama administration finds itself defending the doctrine used to protect anti-terrorism programs accused of illegal spying. The Justice Department has asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for an emergency stay to delay trial court hearings involving the state secrets privilege and the only U.S. chapter of a defunct Islamic charity based in Saudi Arabia."

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, ACLU lawyer Jameel Jaffer calls on Obama to "make good on his promise of transparency by releasing the dozens of still-secret legal memos written by the Bush administration's Office of Legal Counsel...The documents most crucial to the historical record -- including many of the memos used to justify the administration's most radical policies -- are still being withheld. The result is that the public lacks access to basic information about how the Bush administration's national security policies were developed, who participated in their development and what legal arguments were generated to support them."

Margaret Talev writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The longest-serving U.S. senator in history, who's one of the nation's top authorities on congressional power, is challenging President Barack Obama for naming White House policy czars who can operate without the same legislative scrutiny as Cabinet officials."

Jon Cohen writes in The Washington Post: "About two-thirds of Americans support President Obama's decision to send approximately 17,000 additional U.S. military forces to Afghanistan, and, in stark contrast to the sour public reception of former president George W. Bush's 'surge' of troops in Iraq, support for Obama's move crosses party lines, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll."

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "A group of liberal bloggers said it is teaming up with organized labor and MoveOn to form a political action committee that will seek to push the Democratic Party farther to the left...Organizers of the new group, to be called Accountability Now, said their intention is to enable Mr. Obama to seek more liberal policies without fear of losing support from the more conservative members of his party serving in Congress. But they did not rule out occasional friction with Mr. Obama, as well." More here, from Sam Stein of Huffingtonpost.com.

J. Freedom du Lac writes in The Washington Post that Motown music legend Stevie Wonder "went to the White House last night to receive the Library of Congress's Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, and a full-blown concert broke out. As George and Martha Washington peered over the temporary stage from their portraits, the stately East Room was transformed into the world's most exclusive music hall...as Wonder headlined his own gala coronation-cum-concert.

Sandra Sobieraj Westfall writes for People that the first lady "says she thinks she is going to look for a rescue Portuguese Water dog who is 'old enough' and a 'match' for the family dynamic."

Eric Brook writes for the Detroit Free Press that the American Museum of Fly Fishing has indefinitely postponed a dinner honoring former vice president Dick Cheney that had been set for March 5 at the New York Angler's Club -- after some anglers complained about his environmental record.

Late Night Humor

By Dan Froomkin
10:54 AM ET, 02/26/2009

Jon Stewart thinks President Obama may have been a bit too optimistic. Obama says: "This is America. We don't do what's easy. We do what's necessary." Stewart says: "Have you met America? Have you been to America?....In your little plan there, if you're wondering whether to go with necessary or easy? I'd go with easy." Here's the video:

Jimmy Kimmel, via U.S. News: "Obama said that we can overcome this crisis if we're all willing to work hard and make sacrifices. So, in other words, we're screwed."

Steven Colbert looks at the night's brilliant orator.

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
10:20 AM ET, 02/26/2009

Tom Toles, Steve Sack, John Sherffius, Chip Bok, Jimmy Margulies, Lisa Benson, Nate Beeler, Rob Rogers , David Fitzsimmons and Chan Lowe on Obama's speech.

Lee Judge, Signe Wilkinson, Tony Auth, Stuart Carlson and Dwane Powell on the GOP.

Dan Wasserman on selling nationalization, Steve Kelley on the White House signboard and Walt Handelsman on Bill's advice.

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