Posted by Brad @ 10:30 pm on January 25th 2010

President Obama: “Spending Freeze!”

Taking a page out of McCain’s playbook, Obama is going to announce in his State of the Union that for the next three years, all discretionary spending will be frozen. That doesn’t count any military or entitlement spending, that latter of which is legally mandatory, the former of which is political mandatory. Additionally, he’s pledged his support for the Conrad-Gregg bipartisan “Debt Commission”, which would have the power to force an up-or-down vote on systemic changes.

26 Comments »

  1. This is one hell of an idea, one I’ve advocated for the better part of two decades.

    And now, the fine print:

    The cuts would target “duplicative,” “ineffective” and “inefficient” spending withing government, the official said on a conference call with reporters.

    Ah. That again. The “duplicative, ineffective, inefficient” spending that every Presidential candidate of either party for the last five election cycles has pledged to eliminate. And which somehow never, ever goes away.

    Well, at least the universal nature of the cuts takes political gamesmanship off the ta-

    “This is not a blunt, across-the-board freeze,” the official said, adding that some agencies will see spending increases while some will see spending cuts as the total remains constant.

    Oh. So…it’s an overall cap, in fact. But at least there’s teeth in the measure which will force tough choices upon the-

    But nothing is for certain, as Congress must pass individual appropriations bills in addition to approving the budget blueprint.

    The official said Obama is “hopeful” Congress would abide by the total and agree with the administration’s spending priorities.

    So…it’s an overall cap…which requires that spending be capped…unless Congress elects…um…not to?

    Well, at least Obama’s leadership will ensure that-

    House Democrats are rejecting an idea floated by the Obama administration to freeze or cut discretionary spending in 2011.

    Key members of the House Appropriations and Budget committees told The Hill this month they would not go along with alternative spending plans being requested by White House Budget Director Peter Orszag, which are part of the administration’s plan to reduce the deficit.

    Aw, crap.

    It’s another stalking horse.

    You know what’d be AWESOME? If the Republicans immediately endorsed this, formally proposed legislation to do it, and let the Dems roadblock it.

    Comment by Rojas — 1/25/2010 @ 10:47 pm

  2. Yeah, but stalking horse for what? The idea of a stalking horse is you sneak up on something that you actually want to shoot at. But at this point, I question whether Obama and his team even know what they want to do. They frankly seem more than a little rudderless and scattershot.

    And the other thing you really have to question at this point are his political instincts. I think he’s bought into the Andrew Sullivan “liberal pragmatist” idea a bit too much—he strikes me as trying to be too smart for his own good. And I think he’s still operating under the assumption that he’s going to be able to cobble together centrists, fiscal conservatives, and the opposition generally, which makes me wonder how well he understands exactly what’s going on here. Pretty soon, he’s running the very real risk of totally demoralizing his base in attempt to win over imaginary “bipartisan” support that is just never going to materialize at this point, at least not before 2010. I just don’t get how he sees this playing out. He’s lost the plot, and unfortunately I don’t think anybody’s told him that yet (in fact, they don’t seem to believe it).

    He’s really starting to look a bit like George H.W. Bush to me.

    Comment by Brad — 1/25/2010 @ 10:58 pm

  3. This will be wildly unpopular within academia. NSF and other research agencies with frozen funding? The Ivory Towers will reverberate with buyer’s remorse.

    Comment by Adam — 1/25/2010 @ 10:59 pm

  4. Obama:

    The cuts would target “duplicative,” “ineffective” and “inefficient” spending withing government, the official said on a conference call with reporters.

    Congressional Dems:

    But the Democrats warn that cutting or freezing spending at this point might further damage the economy. The White House should focus instead on spending government dollars to help the economy recover and bring the unemployment rate down from 10 percent, they said.

    Republican press release: “Dems demand ‘duplicative’, ‘wasteful’, ‘inefficient’ spending.”

    Talk about some spectacularly crossed signals. The person in charge of preventing this colossal public contradiction would be…who? The party chair?

    Comment by Rojas — 1/25/2010 @ 11:00 pm

  5. It’s like a chicken coop that a wolf peeked into. All flying feathers and deranged cackles.

    Comment by Brad — 1/25/2010 @ 11:09 pm

  6. More details, maybe some teeth. There is an explicit threat of a veto for any budget that goes over the threshold seemingly currently being hammered out in real time.

    Comment by Brad — 1/25/2010 @ 11:12 pm

  7. So…the plan, politically, appears to be that Obama will run against the spendthrift Democratic Congress…and the Congress will run against the miserly President…and by pivoting off one another, they will both hope to retain office.

    If President Obama were to veto the budget of a Democrat-controlled congress and force a government shutdown…well, that would be awesome. I’m not even entirely joking. It’d be like the return of the Clinton-Gingrich era. All the benefits of gridlock without the trouble of having to elect two different parties.

    Comment by Rojas — 1/25/2010 @ 11:21 pm

  8. Reviewing the article in Brad’s #6, I am seeing pledges to increase various educational, technological, and environmental programs. I am seeing a possible pledge to veto budgets above a specific dollar figure. Something has to give. Where are the cuts going to be?

    Comment by Rojas — 1/25/2010 @ 11:24 pm

  9. Brad #6: The sight of Obama vetoing a budget passed by his own party whilst the clock ticks down on the mid-terms would be hilarious.

    Comment by Adam — 1/25/2010 @ 11:40 pm

  10. Just passin’ it on.

    Like Rojas’ 8, I can’t quite figure out what precisely is being proposed here, given that a number of aides are giving conflicting accounts. It seems to me the general line being walked is we will have a spending freeze, except on everything non-discretionary, and except for the discretionary spending that counts as “priorities” of…somebody. But if that totally opaque direction isn’t adhered to, veto.

    Somebody’s really botching this rollout, methinks. I would otherwise think that this was a total shot-in-the-dark ill conceived flagpole run, but given they’re unveiling it at the SOTU, presumably somebody at the White House must understand it.

    Comment by Brad — 1/25/2010 @ 11:55 pm

  11. @ Brad #9 – It really would. What I find fascinating is the possible direction he’s taking his new found populism. He’s straddling the twin pillars of fat-cat bashing and fiscal responsibility. Intriguing.

    Comment by Cameron — 1/26/2010 @ 12:11 am

  12. haha. That would be directed to Adam not Brad.

    Comment by Cameron — 1/26/2010 @ 12:12 am

  13. Man, he’s really getting it both barrels on the blogs this morning. Both left and right seem to hate it, the latter because it is so full of holes and subject to interpretation that to describe it as anything more than a mere peon to fiscal conservatism is laughable. The left because even a mere paen to fiscal conservatism is objectionable, apparently (the phrase of choice: “Hooverism”).

    I agree with Nate Silver: the analogy that leaps most to mind for me too is McCain’s “suspend the campaign” move.

    Comment by Brad — 1/26/2010 @ 10:37 am

  14. McCain’s “suspend the campaign” thing had a potential pay-off if he’d been able to push bail-out support over the line. Of course, the GOP representatives largely hate McCain, certainly not caring enough about him to do him a big favour like that, and thus it came to naught. The pay-off for Obama on this just seems much more distant and even more unlikely, although like McCain was, he is in a “must do something” moment.

    Comment by Adam — 1/26/2010 @ 10:48 am

  15. No, McCain’s move was meaningless grandstanding parading as leadership. One of those “looks good on paper” sort of things that nevertheless makes the people you’re trying to impress mock you and the people who already support roll their eyes. This strikes me similar.

    Comment by Brad — 1/26/2010 @ 10:50 am

  16. Of course it was grandstanding and it was meaningless because it failed to achieve its point, which was to try and shake up a race he was losing. Had it worked out — the Congressional GOP changed their votes and voted in the alleged saviour of the economy — it would have looked good and achieved its goal.

    People mocked it, rightly, because it failed; the House GOP barely moved at all. Of course, in his position there was reason to take big risks because without something big happening, he was going to lose (and that’d really been true since February because once the Democrats finally picked a candidate most of them were going to fall in behind that candidate; as it was, we all knew that they were going to pick the electorally stronger of the two candidates, to boot).

    In this case, I don’t see that the point is proximate enough to be worth the battering Obama’s going to get in the meantime even if it did go according to plan.

    On the plus side, an actual break with the lefties can only be good for his ability to be a good President; alas for him, it probably comes at the cost of his legislative agenda but that’s threatened anyhow. I just think that this is too jarring, as he’s executed it.

    Comment by Adam — 1/26/2010 @ 11:04 am

  17. Which is part of the point of the McCain analogy—it’s one of those things that look like a sensible gamble on paper, until the precise moment when you go public with it, and then it seems pretty obvious that it was a dumb idea to begin with. These are lead balloon sort of ideas.

    Meaning I get the basic gist of both moves, but of course suddenly throwing “spending freeze” into the mix and then opaquely defining it in a confusing and unconvincing manner is not going to get anybody falling to their knees to praise your fiscal rectitude. That’s not an unforeseen “you win some you lose some” thing—hell, if I remember right, Obama sort of mocked McCain when McCain floated this very idea.

    With McCain, you have to be pretty far gone into drinking your own urine to have had the impression that people were going to praise you for your leadership and level head when you make a huge production out of suspending your campaign to return to Washington to broker a deal, when it turns out none of the negotiating parties want or need your presence, and you don’t really suspend your campaign anyway, and you even aren’t sure how you’re going to vote.

    It just makes my wonder, in both cases, why there isn’t one guy in the room with his hand meekly raised pointing this out. It smacks, in both cases, of a room full of people too thoroughly believing their own bullshit.

    Comment by Brad — 1/26/2010 @ 11:20 am

  18. There’s actually a reasonable case to be made that the spending freeze could have been sold–and even sold powerfully–if the Democrats had had their ducks in order from the beginning. The public infighting has been the real disaster.

    Comment by Rojas — 1/26/2010 @ 12:01 pm

  19. But clearly the intent is to placate fiscal conservatives or worried independents. And in that sense, the proposal doesn’t withstand even an hour’s scrutiny before it starts sounding weenie and opaque. And it would have taken something pretty darn bold to placate those groups, at this point, and I’m still not even sure that the best move isn’t to just be bold on health care and let the dust settle before moving on to, say, an entitlement commission.

    To put that another way, the people that this proposal is geared for were already going to be primed to find evidence of unseriousness here. A discretionary spending freeze, even in its hardest form, is not hugely serious (when you exclude entitlements and all national security/military, you exclude 7/8ths of the budget—as somebody at Reason put it, it’s kind of like a guy who can’t pay his dinner bill withholding from ordering a third desert, which is why I didn’t take it very seriously when McCain started floating it either), such that I’m not sure even if this was a severe moratorium Obama was going to gain much. When you add in “except stimulus stuff, and priorities, and education”, of course that’s going to make you look worse than had you proposed nothing at all. The complete failure to vet this through party circles and lay the rails on the left just adds to the perception.

    Comment by Brad — 1/26/2010 @ 1:03 pm

  20. The other problem that this has, politically, is it severely problematizes the case for health care reform and a defense of the stimulus and bailouts. It makes sense, but it’s a weedy argument to have to make.

    Comment by Brad — 1/26/2010 @ 1:16 pm

  21. With McCain, you have to be pretty far gone into drinking your own urine to have had the impression that people were going to praise you for your leadership and level head when you make a huge production out of suspending your campaign to return to Washington to broker a deal, when it turns out none of the negotiating parties want or need your presence, and you don’t really suspend your campaign anyway, and you even aren’t sure how you’re going to vote.

    No, that’s not true; the hope was that the GOP would appear to have changed their votes because of McCain. A remote hope, but what other sort of hope do you have when cruising to defeat with only weeks remaining? All the other hopes have necessarily been exhausted already.

    My point here would be that Obama’s not in close to a fraction of as much trouble as McCain was. On the other hand, this plan for SOTU is just wasteful, because the clock still has time remaining on it. There’s no need to bet on an inside straight right know.

    Comment by Adam — 1/26/2010 @ 1:42 pm

  22. I could have been persuaded, to some extent, by the freeze, in spite of the very true arguments Brad makes in #20 above.

    I see it in much the same way that I saw McCain’s opposition to earmarks. Neither is in any sense a holistic solution to the appetites of government. However, any meaningful attempt to scale the mountain of the deficit is going to have to start by reining in the worst excesses of government.

    To impose a cap on discretionary spending would have suggested to me that the President was at least serious about taking the first step to put our fiscal house in order–certainly that he was more eager to take on that responsibility than the Bush administration was. And of such beginnings could broader cooperation have been born.

    By the way, I STILL don’t for the life of me see why the Republicans aren’t jumping on this. It serves their agenda perfectly and Obama has taken himself completely out of the picture as a demagogue figure–indeed, he’s become an implicit argument against the Congressional Democrats they’re looking to unseat. They should absolutely be taking this ball and running with it.

    Comment by Rojas — 1/26/2010 @ 3:20 pm

  23. They’re sort of like two year olds that have learned how to say “no” at this point.

    I have not been kidding when I’ve said I think there is absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing, at this point, that the Republicans would support enthusiastically if it came from Obama, and I’m including entitlement reform.

    Anyway, I get the point about it being a symbolic start, but it’s not like either earmark reform or even a discretionary freeze have never been floated before. To me, I just have a hard time taking it as indicative of a profound unwillingness to take on any of the sacred cows, military spending and entitlement spending and revenue, upon which any meaningful fiscal solvency would rest. It’s cheap and it’s easy, and even the stronger of the two positions (discretionary freeze) still strikes me as a bit of a cop out, and a way to claim the mantle of fiscal responsibility without actual, you know, fiscal responsibility.

    Comment by Brad — 1/26/2010 @ 3:47 pm

  24. If I were a Republican I’d embrace it if it were tied to tax-cuts, claiming that they’d stimulate growth and cause rising government income, then say that Obama hates the middle-class when he says ‘no’ to tax cuts, and run on that in November.

    Comment by Adam — 1/26/2010 @ 4:48 pm

  25. Meaning I get the basic gist of both moves, but of course suddenly throwing “spending freeze” into the mix and then opaquely defining it in a confusing and unconvincing manner is not going to get anybody falling to their knees to praise your fiscal rectitude. That’s not an unforeseen “you win some you lose some” thing—hell, if I remember right, Obama sort of mocked McCain when McCain floated this very idea.

    Man, I swore I was remembering that right, but hadn’t heard anybody else bring it up so I was starting to question whether my recollection was wrong.

    But yeah, I did remember that right.

    Comment by Brad — 1/26/2010 @ 10:51 pm

  26. Nevermind on that Conrad-Gregg Budget Commission. It couldn’t garner the votes to be created.

    Comment by Brad — 1/27/2010 @ 10:09 am

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