For once, House Republicans and the Democratic White House are on the same wavelength in assessing President Obama’s budget for the next fiscal year. The office of Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio described it as “more of the same.” And the president, speaking in Virginia, happily confirmed that the budget was a continuation of the theme he first struck in December in his speech in Kansas and then again last month in his State of the Union address.
Kansas provided the vision; the State of the Union provided, the president said, “the blueprint”; and Monday’s budget contains “the details of that blueprint.” This is what Obama will govern on the rest of this year and what he will campaign on as he seeks a second term.
If there is any doubt of the political uses of the budget, look at the way the president chose to unveil the document. Most presidents are content to leave the unveiling to their budget chiefs and top economic advisers. Only two presidents in the postwar era have presided over a full, detailed presentation – Harry Truman in 1952 and Gerald R. Ford in 1975 when the White House wanted to rebut the notion that the new president was not very smart.
But no president can match Obama's preferred method of introducing his budget. Last year, he went to a middle school in Baltimore. This year, he staged a campaign-style rally as a launching pad for the budget. Ford was in the State Department Auditorium, pie charts behind him and surrounded by number-crunchers; Obama was in a school gym, an “America -- Built to Last” banner on the wall and surrounded by students, some of them yelling how much they love the president. Ford rattled off the budget numbers; Obama jokingly told the students they didn’t have to read the budget. “It’s long and a lot of numbers,” he said.
But Obama understands that in an election year, the budget is a tool to communicate a president’s values and priorities to the nation. It is not just numbers, particularly when no one disputes that a Republican-controlled House is going to ignore the numbers in the budget anyway. And especially when there was so little suspense about what would be in a document that was prepared under existing spending caps and guaranteed to duplicate 85 pages of budget recommendations sent by the administration to the special super committee back in September.
So the president honed in on the message he wants the budget document to communicate. “The main idea in the budget," he said, "is this: At a time when our economy is growing and creating jobs at a faster clip, we’ve got to do everything in our power to keep this recovery on track.”
The message is unchanged from Kansas. “We've got a choice,” he told the Virginia students. “We can settle for a country where a few people do really, really well, and everybody else struggles to get by. Or we can restore an economy where everybody gets a fair shot, everybody does their fair share, everybody plays by the same set of rules -- from Washington to Wall Street to Main Street.”
In Kansas he said: "I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules."
So there was merely a nod to deficit reduction. The contrast with last year’s budget roll-out was stark. Then, there was considerable attention to the deficit-cutting elements of the spending plan. Now, there was an emphasis on the need for continued “investments” – Republicans call it spending – on programs that stimulate the job market, nurture the nascent recovery, and bring more equity to the tax system. And that all comes under the campaign mantra of not going back to the pre-Obama Washington. “The last thing we can afford to do right now is to go back to the very policies that got us into this mess in the first place,” the president told the students.
And while Obama did not mention this to the students, his top budget advisers repeatedly championed a “balanced” approach to tax reform, seeking to ratchet up the pressure on Republican lawmakers to yield on revenue increases in exchange for spending cuts. That was the Democratic rallying cry in 2011. And the rollout of this budget leaves no doubt that it will be the rallying cry throughout 2012. It will, indeed, be “more of the same” this election year.