The Weakest Pillar

By Dan Froomkin
1:30 PM ET, 05/ 7/2009

President Obama this morning served up the details of his extraordinarily ambitious budget, bringing it in at $3.4 trillion and 1374 pages.

It may be, as Obama said in his remarks, that "[t]he question the American people are asking is whether Washington is prepared to act with the same sense of responsibility."

But if so, the president is probably better off making his argument by focusing on the enormous investments in the big-money "pillars" of his "new foundation" -- education, health care and energy -- than he is calling too much attention to that other pillar, fiscal responsibility.

Because try as they might, White House officials just aren't going to get too many people to see a $3.4 trillion budget as lean.

Chief White House budgeteer Peter Orszag insists in a blog post today: "We in the Administration have spoken often about the President’s Budget heralding a new era of responsibility — an era in which we not only do what we must to lift our economy out of recession, but in which we also lay a new foundation for long-term growth and prosperity. This means making long overdue investments and reforms in health care, education, and energy. It also means restoring fiscal discipline. We cannot put our nation on a course for long-term growth with uncontrollable deficits and debt, and we no longer can afford to tolerate investments in programs that are outdated, duplicative, ineffective, or wasteful."

But the list of Terminations, Reductions and Savings that the White House is so proud of just doesn't look like very much when stacked up against everything else. It calls for the elimination of 121 federal programs at a savings of $17 billion.

As Lori Montgomery and Amy Goldstein wrote in The Washington Post this morning, that's a tiny fraction -- half a percent -- of next year's budget.

"The plan is less ambitious than the hit list former president George W. Bush produced last year, targeting 151 programs for $34 billion in savings," Montgomery and Goldstein write. "And like most of the cuts Bush sought, congressional sources and independent budget analysts yesterday predicted that Obama's, too, would be a tough sell.

"'Even if you got all of those things, it would be saving pennies, not dollars. And you're not going to begin to get all of them,' said Isabel Sawhill, a Brookings Institution economist who waged her own battles with Congress as a senior official in the Clinton White House budget office. 'This is a good government exercise without much prospect of putting a significant dent in spending.'"

Comparing the Obama and Bush proposed cuts is a bit unfair, mind you. No one thought for a moment that Bush was serious about pushing for his proposed cuts, most of which were congressional darlings that he had lamely nominated for the chopping block year after year.

What's unclear is how hard Obama will pursue his cuts -- and how successful he will be. Obama acknowledged in his remarks that cutting is harder than spending for Congress: "None of this will be easy. For every dollar we seek to save there will be those who have an interest in seeing it spent. That's how unnecessary programs survive year after year. That's how budgets swell. That's how the people's interest is slowly overtaken by the special interests. But at this moment -- at this difficult time for our nation -- we cannot accept business as usual. We cannot accept anything less than a government ready to meet the challenges of our time."

Here's one good sign: the administration's proposed defense cuts aren't already history. Christopher Drew writes in the New York Times: "In the past, military contractors have routinely beaten back attempts to cancel weapons programs by lobbying Congress. But Mr. Obama's popularity and the financial crisis are changing this well-choreographed dance. The White House is trying to demonstrate that when the president says no, he means it."

Overall, the budget -- the broad outlines of which have already won congressional approval -- includes substantial increases in domestic spending, particularly in the areas Obama champions in his budget message as the "pillars of the stable and broad economic growth we seek." Those are: "making long overdue investments and reforms in education so that every child can compete in the global economy, undertaking health care reform so that we can control costs while boosting coverage and quality, and investing in renewable sources of energy so that we can reduce our dependence on foreign oil and become the world leader in the new clean energy economy."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company