On the Budget, Obama Repositions Himself as the Reasonable One

President Barack Obama (right) with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senator John Cornyn (R-Tex.), and Senator Susan Collins (R-Me.) before his third day of meetings with Congress on budget issues Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This morning, the White House leaked details of the president’s upcoming budget to the New York Times. The big news: Obama will include cuts to future Medicare and Social Security benefits. This is significant for two reasons.

First, it positions the White House budget as the “compromise” plan. Historically the White House releases its budget first, and then—if control of Congress is split between the parties, as it is now—the House and Senate introduce their budgets. But this year the White House dragged its feet, prompting much grumbling from Republicans. This was purely strategic. It forced the Democratic Senate and the Republican House to produce their budgets first, and that yielded a fairly liberal budget (Senate) and a very conservative budget (House).

Now the White House is about to unveil a budget that includes meaningful cuts to entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security—which the Senate budget did not—but stops short of the draconian cuts (repealing Obamacare, etc.) in the House budget. It positions Obama in exactly the place where he is most comfortable: as the reasonable-seeming guy in the middle urging both sides to look beyond their partisan interests and “do what’s best for the country.”

The other significant thing about Obama’s budget is that it brings his whole negotiating strategy with Republicans full circle—although this time, the White House hopes, there’ll be a better outcome. Early in Obama’s presidency, liberals loudly complained that he was consistently being played for a chump because he would begin his negotiations by adopting a reasonable-seeming compromise position, in the hopes that Republicans would recognize this magnanimous gesture and reciprocate by doing the same. Well, they didn’t do the same. They clung to far-right positions, and Obama wound up settling for things much closer to what Republicans wanted.

Then, after the July 2011 debt-ceiling debacle, Obama changed tack. In the fiscal-cliff negotiations, for example, he made demands (such as raising income tax rates on every household that made more than $250,000) and pretty much stuck to his guns until the final negotiations. That worked, but only because of the forcing mechanism of the fiscal cliff. Obama tried again with the sequester, but Republicans called his bluff and won.

So with his new budget, Obama’s back to the old way of doing things, but with one possibly important caveat. This time, rather than staking out the lefty position himself, he’s allowed Senate Democrats to do it for him. His “moderate” compromise budget—he hopes—will be seen as the reasonable middle ground between two partisan poles, rather than the far-left pole from which negotiations with Republicans will move things further to the right. This is, at its heart, a political maneuver that may or may not work. But it reveals that Obama knows his old strategy had run its course.

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