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The Weakest Pillar

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growth with uncontrollable deficits and debt, and we no longer can afford to tolerate investments in programs that are outdated, duplicative, ineffective, or wasteful."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."

By Dan Froomkin  |  May 7, 2009; 1:30 PM ET
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"As Lori Montgomery and Amy Goldstein wrote in The Washington Post this morning, [$17 billion is] a tiny fraction -- half a percent -- of next year's budget."

I don't recall seeing a similar qualification when McCain was grandstanding about his $18 billion earmark "reform" that would have actually saved precisely $0. How incredibly fortunate we all are that political reporters have suddenly and mysteriously found their missing spines in the past few months.

Dan, you gotta get out of this Mickey Mouse organization. Their insistence on appeasing neoconservatives is a surefire sign that WaPo will be among the dailies going out of business soon.

Posted by: BigTunaTim | May 7, 2009 3:04 PM | Report abuse

If anybody wants serious cuts, let them cut the War Budget. DoD MISPLACED 10$ billion in the first year in Iraq. There isn't going to be a massive tank/plane war in central Europe. Congress should limit the War Budget to 50% of what all of the other countries in the world put together are spending (we are currently at about 100%).

Posted by: dickdata | May 7, 2009 3:26 PM | Report abuse

I think Obama should get some credit for rolling most of the recurring "supplemental" items from recent budgets into the main budget. Obama's proposed budget should be compared to the actual spending during the Bush presidency, rather than to Bush's fairy tale budget proposals which did not take the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan into account.

Posted by: fletc3her | May 7, 2009 3:46 PM | Report abuse

The financial institutions get/got lots of money, but singlepayer healthcare is still "off the table". Escalation of war in Afghanistan, but singlepayer health care for all, is still "off the table". Missiles/drones into Pakistan villages (illegal, war crimes)gets money. Keeping the military in Iraq, gets money,
BUT SINGLEPAYER healthcare for all, is not yet "on the table". Neither is a decent bailout for people who have faced and are facing foreclosure. It's more of the same. New president, some cosmetic: e.g. closing Guantanamo prison is a promise, but military tribunals for made-up names "enemy combatants" and expanding Bagram Prison, lack of habeas corpus is costly, not just in money, but in constitutional law and justice.

Posted by: NYCartist | May 7, 2009 4:03 PM | Report abuse

fletc3her @ 3:46 is right (not for the first time). Part of the fiscal responsibility that Orszag is talking about is simply being honest about the budget. Bush was hardly the first to use tricks to get around the sticker shock, and it was sleazy every time.

The proposed cuts should be viewed in a fairer frame as well. Most of the budget is not 'discretionary'. The National Science Foundation has an annual budget of just over $6 billion. The National Parks are squeezed to running on less than 2.5! $17 billion may be only pennies in the whole budget, but if its wasteful spending, then it is a national embarrassment to leave it untouched while deserving programs struggle.

Posted by: ath28 | May 7, 2009 4:37 PM | Report abuse

"Fiscal responsibility"

We had zero fiscal responsibility for 8 years, $5 TRILLION in new federal debt added, and a $1.3 TRILLION budget deficit for FY 2009 before Jan 20, 2009.

Early in 2001 Vice President Cheney told Paul O'Neil, "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter." Can ANYONE find a quote from a Bush administration official concerned about fiscal responsibility?

The answer is going to have to be tax increases to balance the previously allocating spending, spending cuts around the edges, and future reductions in spending growth - that is - reducing inflation adjusted growth.

Actually the honest answer is going to have to be inflation to artificially scale future dollars to look like they are worth more than old dollars, when the opposite it true. If you lived through the '60s and '70s this isn't new.

This would have had to happen under President Palin, too, assuming Republicans are ready to be honest about it.

Posted by: boscobobb | May 7, 2009 7:01 PM | Report abuse

It is very strange that this piece seems unaware that economic stimulus means spending money - you can't stimulate and cut spending at the same time. If there was ever a time for stimulus it is now.

Of course it is also strange that when the economy was going well in 1999-2000 the talk was of more spending and cutting taxes. One would think that nothing had been learned in economics over the last 70 years.

Posted by: skeptonomist | May 8, 2009 8:59 AM | Report abuse

The other part of this that is missing from the debate - which might help frame it better, is how much of the federal budget is mandatory spending. Roughly 54% of federal spending is mandatory - that means that Mr. Obama and Congress don't get to fight over it. Add in interest on the National Debt (conservatively around 12% of total expenditures) and you get 66% of the federla budget that isn't touched in this battle. Put another way, congresa dnthe White House will exercise no control over outlays of around $7 trillion of tax payer money because previous Congresses created laws mandating that spending.

In that context, $3.4 trillion sure looks spendthrift to me.

Posted by: kcsphil | May 8, 2009 4:13 PM | Report abuse

I am still rooting hard for President Obama. He is president for four years, not 100 days.

From the positive side, it may take great political courage to at least get genuine reform ideas out there, even if there's little chance that his own party will support them.

On the other hand, especially with regard to Afghanistan, I'm afraid that the president is consistently keeping one promise: that he isn't perfect.

Posted by: bfieldk | May 9, 2009 8:25 AM | Report abuse

Obama has cut off funding to complete the border fence. This is one area where we need to spend and secure our border.

Posted by: Bubbette1 | May 10, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

How Could Anyone Believe Preident Obama"s Budget - After All The Disappearing Citizens Tax Dollars This Government Has Advocated?

Offshore Bankers and Global Elitists are moving their agenda quickly, they know their servants who have infiltrated government have a short window of time to complete their agenda!

When we stop them there will be trials for High Treason and prison time dealt out!

We need to speed up our objectives before they get entrenched,banksters and global elitists are also attempting to speed up right now with some of the most ridiculous proposed bills we have ever seen, all slanted to take freedom away from citizens of course!

If we don't act to end this governmental terrorism, we will become slaves, our standard of living won't be worth calling living in any type of society other than what is known as slavery! We don't have anything to lose!

Remember to support the HR 1207 Bill to help get the Federal Reserve audited and under control of the American Government!

Phone your Government Reps to encourage them to vote for this bill as and in service to the people they have sworn to serve!

Folks, this is not a battle of Left or Right, whether our government is Left or Right our leaders are under the force of Global Elitists,this is where our present governments allegiances are going instead of working for the citizens of the United States!

Elitists love to get you blaming left or right while they sit back and pull and manipulate the strings!

If you want life and liberty, you better get to work backing Government Representatives who are working to save your First and Second Ammendment Rights as well as others of your God given Ammendment rights, as time really is of the essence!
It is going to take the contribution of all American citizens who love this country to get our raped country back!

Posted by: PaulRevere4 | May 11, 2009 12:59 AM | Report abuse

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