Updated at 4:36 p.m. on February 10.
When National Journal first reported that President Obama's budget will cut a popular home heating-assistance program for the poor, it got Democrats furious and pundits wondering.
The Democratic nominee for president before Obama, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., denounced the proposed cut. So did Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and many others especially from cold weather states. After all, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Plan is about as sacrosanct as, say, the Head Start program for low-income children.
LIHEAP helps the poor stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer. And since it's disproportionately the elderly who are reliant on the program, it engenders even more sympathy. Who wants Grandma freezing?
Slashing the program's funding seems meant to prove a few things. It could show that the president is tough on the deficit. Even if the program costs just a few billion dollars and thus is minuscule in comparison to the deficit—let alone the national debt—it shows a degree of toughness on spending that no one has thus far seen from an Obama adminstration that came to office thinking that Keynesian pump priming was the only thing between America and the abyss.
In a larger sense, though, the cut may signal something even larger than deficit cutting. It could be slightly analagous to President Clinton's efforts to reform welfare. When he passed welfare reform after the Democrats' midterm drubbing in 1994, many Democrats and not a few Republicans looked at it cynically as a political move designed to reposition the president for reelection.
Others saw it as a more principled move. Clinton had campaigned on welfare reform in 1992, even if he had ignored it largely in his first term. He had argued that welfare as a permanent entitlement had done no one, least of all the poor, any favors, and so he famously pledged to "end welfare as we know it."
Indeed, he did. The end of Aid to Families with Dependent Children was a signal event in American social policy. It's different in many respects than the LIHEAP cut. LIHEAP is popular; welfare was, at best, seen as necessary but it was always a political weight for Democrats. Clinton had campaigned on welfare reform; Obama brought this up out of the blue. Trimming LIHEAP may save some money, but no one expects great social benefits.
Still, each move may force a fundamental rethinking of the president who proposed it. If Obama can end LIHEAP as we know it, then it's going to be much harder to characterize him as the crazed spender of tea party fulminations. Two very different programs and circumstances, yes, but each changes the lens through which we see the president.
Interestingly, the Clinton administration itself sought to cut LIHEAP.
Of course, there is a possibility that this could become Obama's "firemen first" problem. The phrase comes from Washington editor and author Charles Peters, who has noted that when cities face budget cuts, those resisting the cuts almost always point immediately to the threat of firemen losing their jobs. The idea is to create so much fear that the cuts never go through.
When President Reagan proposed his budget in 1981 with cuts to the Interior Department, there were widespread leaks that the Washington Monument might have to close. (The celebrated obelisk on the National Mall is run by the National Park Service, a part of the Interior Department.) Reagan got some of his cuts and the monument was never shuttered.
By offering a particuarly dramatic cut--although its actual effects of the poor are far from clear--the administration may find its allies more combative and dug in on other issues, too. If they're coming for grandma's heating oil, then what are they going to do about Social Security? Obama and the Republicans know they have to reduce a national debt that's close to 100 percent of the gross domestic product. How they get there is going to be the fascinating story of 2011, and the LIHEAP card, first unearthed by National Journal, couldn't be a more interesting way to start.