Obama's budget and the put-up-or-shut-up challenge

As promised, President Obama sent Congress his budget for the 2014 fiscal year this morning, and there's just enough in it to make everyone unhappy from a variety of directions.

Republicans won't like everything about this plan that makes it progressive: it expands Medicaid, undoes sequestration cuts while ignoring Paul Ryan's demands to slash public investments, pursues a universal-preschool initiative though new tobacco taxes, expands the Earned Income Tax Credit, invests another $50 billion in job-creating infrastructure, gives a big boost to federal R&D, and takes away breaks for Big Oil.

Democrats won't like everything about this plan that makes it conservative: it includes additional Medicare reforms, it adopts chained-CPI to lower Social Security benefits, and it focuses more on the spending side of the ledger than the revenue side. On a fundamental level, Obama's budget starts in the middle, rather than the left, making negotiations that much more difficult.

But whichever side you fall on, there's an underlying strategy here. Ezra Klein's summary sounds right to me:

Today's budget is the White House's effort to reach the bedrock of the fiscal debate. Half of its purpose is showing what they're willing to do. They want a budget compromise, and this budget proves it. There are now liberals protesting on the White House lawn. But the other half is revealing what the GOP is -- or, more to the point, isn't -- willing to do. Republicans don't want a budget compromise, and this budget is likely to prove that, too.As the White House sees it, there are two possible outcomes to this budget. One is that it actually leads to a grand bargain, either now or in a couple of months. Another is that it proves to the press and the public that Republican intransigence is what's standing in the way of a grand bargain.

So, which of these two outcomes is more likely?

I think the smart money is on the latter. The president has called every GOP bluff and put his cards on the table -- Republicans said Obama wouldn't have the guts to go after entitlements and isn't tough enough to risk the ire of his base. And now we know these assumptions were wrong -- the president has presented a White House budget that includes the very entitlement "reforms" GOP leaders asked for, and liberals are furious.

It is, in other words, "put up or shut up" time. Republicans, out of excuses, can either meet Obama half-way or they'll be exposed as craven. And if the last several years are any indication, GOP lawmakers will chose the latter without a moment's thought.

Indeed, as Greg Sargent noted, congressional Republican leaders have already spent the afternoon arguing that Obama should simply give the GOP what it wants, and abandon the Democratic priorities, reinforcing the perception that Republicans still do not yet understand the difference between an offer and a gift.

In fact, I should mention that I received an email the other day from a long-time reader asking why I don't seem more worked up about chained-CPI. The reader asked whether I support it (I don't) and whether I've been relatively quiet about it out of some ideological or partisan predisposition.

I'll tell you what I told him: I'm not worked up about it because I don't see the scenario in which Republicans get chained-CPI by giving Obama hundreds of billions of new revenue. It's easy to remain detached about a bad idea that seems highly unlikely to go anywhere. As Kevin Drum added today, "I don't doubt that Obama's offer is sincere, but it doesn't matter. Republicans aren't going to take it. Obama will get his proof that Republicans simply aren't willing to negotiate seriously, and who knows? Maybe it will do him some good. But that's all he'll get."

For me, the more interesting question is how the political world will process these developments when they occur. The Beltway said Obama needed to reach out to Republicans, so he reached out to Republicans. The Beltway said Obama needed to schmooze Republicans in a more personal way, so he did that, too. The Beltway said Obama needed to be willing to alienate his own supporters, and the president's base has been duly outraged. The Beltway said Obama needed to put Medicare and Social Security on the table, and they're on the table.

Will pundits who continue to blame "both sides" for partisan gridlock look ridiculous in the coming months? I sure as hell hope so.