How should liberals think about the Obama administration's new budget? Ultimately I'm pretty happy with it, but let me explain how I get there:
The first-order description has to be that Obama's budget is bad. The domestic discretionary budget is not too big. We should not be cutting Pell Grants or heating assistance for low-income families in general, and we especially should not be doing so during a recession.
On the other hand, the Budget is a political document. Obama doesn't have the power to enact his priorities unilaterally, so his strategy is to seize the center and portray Republicans as unreasonable. His strategy for doing so revolves around moving the debate from the principle of whether to cut the budget to the specific of how to do so.
On yet another hand, when you concede the basic principle from the outset -- that the appropriate response to an economic crisis that's driven deficits up and interest rates to the bottom is to cut the domestic budget -- you've sort of lost even if you've won. At some point, don't Democrats have to stop winning debates by conceding ideological ground and start changing the ideological ground, by challenging the public's views on government?
On the final hand -- and this is where I wind up -- changing people's minds about government is hard. People support most actual programs, but they think foreign aid constitutes a huge part of the budget and you can generate mass savings by eliminating waste and bureaucracy. They've believed those things for a long time.
What's more, I actually see the administration's budget gambit as a subtle attempt to change peoples' minds. The administration is loudly publicizing the fact that it's cutting programs it thinks are necessary. The message, sometimes made explicit, is that the budget actually does not contain a lot of waste. It's filled with programs that have survived many previous rounds of belt-tightening for a reason. If you want to cut the budget, you have to cut useful and necessary things.
I don't think this will have a big effect. But I do think Obama is trying, in a passive-aggressive way, to do what liberals have demanded. He's explaining to the public that the free-ride view of budget cutting -- we can cut our way out of the deficit by eliminating waste and spending that only benefits foreigners -- is wrong. Obviously, having a budget in deficit during a period of mass unemployment and a GOP-led House immune to macroeconomic reason is a bad hand. I think ultimately Obama is playing it reasonably well.