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the national interest

Obama: I’ll Still Cut Retirement Programs

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) listens as President Barack Obama  delivers the State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill January 24, 2012 in Washington, DC. The president made a populist pitch to voters for economic fairness, saying the federal government should more do to balance the benefits of a capitalist society. Oh, your budget offer is now a budget PLAN? This changes everything!

The “news” that President Obama’s budget will include cuts to Medicare and Social Security is news only if you accept certain metaphysical assumptions that I find downright weird. Last year, Obama had a budget without those cuts, because that budget reflected his ideal version of what taxes and spending ought to look like — or, at least, the closest thing to an ideal version that he would like to defend in public. That budget was never going to be passed into law because Republicans hate his ideas and also hate him. Last December, Obama offered a compromise version of his budget, detailed here, with lower spending and lower taxes, in an attempt to get Republicans to make a deal with him. It failed for the same reasons.

Today’s budget news is that the two documents have become, essentially, one. Obama’s offer to Boehner is now his official budget and not just his offer. What is the difference? I can’t really see any. They’re both documents describing a mix of policies to cut spending and increase revenue that Obama would like Republicans to pass, but that they won’t pass.

It would be meaningful if Obama were announcing that he was altering his ideal position — that, after thinking it over, he agreed that taxes shouldn’t be raised so much, and cuts to Medicare and Social Security are not just tolerable concessions but actually good ideas. In other words, that what was once a compromise is now his ideal plan. But Obama isn’t saying that. He’s saying the opposite, actually — administration officials insist that they will accept the cuts to retirement programs only if Republicans accept the revenue.

So what has changed? Obama’s ideal preference about government hasn’t changed. Obama’s public offer to Republicans defining what he’d accept hasn’t changed. I don’t mean to go freshman year philosophy here, but the difference between a budget and an offer pertaining to the budget rests upon a distinction that eludes me completely.

Mainly this appears to be a message strategy aimed at advocates of BipartisanThink, who have been blaming Obama for failing to offer the plan he has in fact been offering. The strategy is that, by converting their offer to Boehner from an “offer” to a “budget,” it will prove that Obama is Serious.

On the one hand, this strikes me as completely ridiculous. On the other hand, it might actually work! BipartisanThinkers like Ron Fournier (“a gutsy change in strategy”) and Joe Scarborough (“Now THIS is a real budget … exciting”) are gushing with praise.

For the strategy to really succeed, the BipartisanThinkers have to help persuade Senate Republicans to strike a deal, and then somehow get John Boehner to secretly agree with it and let it come to a vote in the House, even if almost all the House Republicans naturally vote against it. The fallback option is that the BipartisanThinkers stop blaming both sides and start blaming Republicans, though this seems like an extremely forlorn hope — more likely, the BipartisanThinkers will eventually redefine Obama’s compromise position as Big Government liberalism and the center as the halfway point between that and Paul Ryan’s plan to kill and eat the poor.

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Photo: Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images