Policy: Budgets & Deficits

Obama's populist budget aims to help Democrats in fall races

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Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Barack Obama,2014 Elections,PennAve,Budgets and Deficits,Elections,Magazine

The 2014 midterm campaign began in earnest with President Obama unveiling his fiscal 2015 budget, a progressive wish list designed to boost Democrats in November.

With little appetite for a so-called "grand bargain" on Capitol Hill, the White House abandoned previous proposals to slow the growth of entitlement programs, instead pushing for higher taxes on the wealthy and more domestic spending that it claims will increase job growth and combat income inequality.

Although presidential budgets are usually political documents, critics say Obama's latest effort is an unabashed piece of campaign literature that portrays Democrats as in tune with the needs of the middle class -- and Republicans as beholden to the “1 percent.”

It's a strategy that worked well for Obama in 2012, effectively pegging GOP nominee Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch rich stiff, well before many voters developed an opinion of the former Massachusetts governor.

But even some Democrats are wondering whether the White House strategy will work this time around, with congressional candidates having to absorb the fallout from the roughest political stretch of Obama’s presidency.

“The White House is certainly taking a page out of the 2012 playbook,” a well-connected Democratic pollster observed. “But it will be a tougher sell. It’s a lot harder for a second-term president to make the election a referendum on the other side.”

Others weren’t so diplomatic in their assessment of the White House’s throwback strategy.

“It’s really hard for the president to make chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what,” said Republican strategist Patrick Griffin. “There’s a sense of Obama fatigue right now. It makes the rerun of rhetoric less acceptable.”

“For Obama," he added, "the problem is that Yogi Berra line: ‘You can observe a lot just by watching.’"

Republicans are banking that Obama can't frame the GOP alternative as unacceptable given how many Americans are dissatisfied with the status quo.

Obama's approval ratings are hovering around 40 percent because of growing disillusionment with the Affordable Care Act, sluggish job growth, distrust of the executive branch and a series of international crises that have raised questions about the president's foreign policy.

With his $3.9 trillion budget request for fiscal 2015, however, Obama is hoping to put the spotlight on Republicans rather than his own shortcomings, as well as rally his base.

Obama is pushing for increased spending on education, infrastructure, and tax credits for the working poor, proposals the White House says would be paid for by ending tax breaks for wealthy Americans and corporations.

The president is calling for the implementation of the Buffett Rule — named after the billionaire — which would impose a minimum 30 percent tax rate on millionaires. Obama also wants an even higher tax on tobacco products than previously proposed to cover the cost of expanded preschool programs.

“Our budget is about choices, it’s about our values,” the president said when unveiling his proposal. “As a country, we’ve got to make a decision if we’re going to protect tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans or if we’re going to make smart investments necessary to create jobs and grow our economy, and expand opportunity for every American.”

Obama is now trumpeting his budget plan, along with a proposal to raise the minimum wage, as part of the progressive call to arms unveiled in his State of the Union address. The president's favorite slogan of late is “opportunity for all.”

Obama also heeded calls from Democrats to preserve Social Security cost-of-living increases, backing away from previous concessions offered to Republicans in pursuit of a long-term fiscal agreement.

Senate Democrats announced they wouldn't put forward a budget plan of their own this year, essentially leaving Obama's fiscal blueprint as the barometer by which progressives should be judged in 2014.

Sources close to Obama say his budget is merely a reflection of paralysis in Washington, an effort to shield Democrats from political pain because there is little hope of a major policy breakthrough ahead of the midterms.

“Why would he put his neck out there,” a former senior administration official asked, “with Republicans unwilling to give him anything?”

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