After exactly three months in office, President Obama called a Cabinet meeting to announce his first push for federal belt tightening. His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, had dubbed this initiative "the Dave project," after the movie in which the eponymous presidential body double invites his accountant to the White House to slice waste out of the budget. The American people, Obama said that day, had lost confidence in their government's ability to spend wisely. "We've got to earn their trust," he declared. So he challenged his Cabinet to report back to him in 90 days with cuts totaling $100 million.
Million with an M. Dave would not have been impressed.
But times have changed. On Wednesday, Obama proposed to reduce the U.S. deficit by a total of $4 trillion over the next 12 years. Trillion with a T. This megaDave project is a serious proposal, far more sensible, realistic and balanced than the Ayn Rand fantasy budget unveiled last week by Republican Congressman Paul Ryan. It would restore Clinton-era tax rates on the rich, while reducing spending on defense and health care, the largest threats to our long-term solvency. Dave would approve.
Still, it feels reactive. It seems like Obama is boxing himself into a whose-is-bigger debate over spending cuts, playing into the hands of the anti-government Republicans who have made it clear that they care more about shrinking the government than shrinking the deficit. It doesn't feel particularly new, either. Now Obama is in danger of losing a fiscal-responsibility contest to the GOP, which is like losing a slam-dunk contest to Betty White.
The irony is that since the Dave debacle, Obama has been far more fiscally responsible than he has gotten credit for. His health reforms are already on track to slash the deficit by reining in unnecessary Medicaid and Medicare expenditures over time. He eliminated the F-22 fighter jet, a rare reduction of Pentagon bloat. And he created a bipartisan deficit commission that tried to recommend a path to balance, before Ryan and other commission members blocked the way. He's been less responsible on the revenue side, agreeing to a deficit-expanding $878 billion tax-cut deal last December. But at least he argued for increasing rates on the families earning more than $250,000 a year, who have vacuumed up increasing shares of national income over the past decade; it was the Republicans who adamantly refused.
Still, it's hard to see how Obama can win a public-relations battle over spending cuts. He has shown that he's willing to cut spending, but Republicans are clearly eager to cut spending.
Last week, after agreeing to the GOP's budget demands in order to prevent a government shutdown, the Obama Administration hailed "the biggest spending cut in American history," as if it were something Obama had wanted all along. On Wednesday, he emphasized that his deficit-reduction plan includes three dollars in spending cuts for every one dollar in new taxes. But he isn't convincing anyone that he's the most aggressive cutter in this knife fight. All he's doing is moving the center of the debate to the right, implicitly conceding that big government spending is the bulk of the deficit problem.