President Obama ended his Wednesday speech unveiling the White House’s 2014 budget on a note of perhaps excessive honesty.
“When it comes to deficit reduction, I’ve already met Republicans more than halfway,” he said. “So in the coming days and weeks, I hope Republicans will come forward and demonstrate that they’re really as serious about the deficit as they claim to be.”
The president was speaking the truth: He has met Republicans more than halfway. His new budget adopts chained CPI, the indexing adjustment to Social Security that would effectively cut the program’s future disbursements. It also includes some modest cuts to the provider side of Medicare expenditures.
Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank explained that these concessions to the right, while upsetting to the president’s progressive base, would ultimately give him a stronger hand in negotiations with the Republican Party.
“Now Obama, by publicly defying liberals in his party, looks like the reasonable one,” wrote Milbank, “and Republicans look unreasonable if they continue to carp about Obama’s proposal without offering more tax hikes.”
Half of the plan has worked. When it leaked out last week that the president’s new budget would include chained CPI, liberals were predictably incensed.
After all, “[y]ou can’t call yourself a Democrat and support Social Security benefit cuts,” according to a characteristic and widely circulated reaction from Stephanie Taylor, of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
But if Milbank is right, then stage two of the president’s plan is foundering. Ohio’s Republican House Speaker John Boehner has already dismissed chained CPI as an insufficient concession, saying that the president is in fact “moving in the wrong direction.” Considering how far right the president would still need to travel in order to get into the same zip code as the 2014 Ryan budget, the mutual give-and-take Obama says he craves seems unlikely to occur.
If history is any guide, it will not. There’s a reason why the Senate only recently passed its first federal budget since 2009: All the White House’s previous offers to compromise in good faith have been rejected.
When, in order to end the 2011 debt ceiling crisis, President Obama offered to raise the Medicare eligibility age, the Republicans rejected his overtures. And the last time the president offered his support for chained CPI, that too was rejected. In fact, Republicans continued to talk about chained CPI in public as if Obama had never agreed to it.
Never once has a Grand Bargain materialized. Instead, the American budget for the past few years has been defined by a sort of schizophrenic spending-side austerity, with the occasional tax increase rearing its head to create the illusion of a real deficit reduction strategy. Each compromise has resulted in cuts—with sequestration in particular wreaking a great deal of havoc—but if the Democratic Party wants to reassure its base that a compromise has been struck, it has little to point to in Washington’s recent history of budget half-measures.
Nonetheless, the president will probably not face a revolt from the base. The Rose Garden press conference in which he presented his new budget had scarcely ended before SEIU president Mary Kay Henry released a mild statement saying, “We object to the President’s proposals to cut Social Security and Medicare,” but that “we stand with him in his call to create jobs and expand our economic recovery.”
In the estimation of many progressive groups in Washington, it seems, the Democrats are the only game in town. And in the estimation of the Democrats, the only way to finally achieve a cohesive budget is by offering up more cuts.