In two separate conference calls with journalists yesterday, one with progressive bloggers and one with a larger collection of local and national reporters, the Obama administration emphasized that the cuts in its budget proposal represent “shared sacrifice.” Americans of all regions and income levels will feel the brunt of “tough choices” which have to be made in order to bring the budget back into balance.
I was able to attend both of these conference calls. On the call with a wider range of journalists, administration officials faced repeated questions from local reporters pertaining to program cuts that impacted their specific localities. Time and again, National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling said that the administration did not consider those programs--ranging from LIHEAP to Great Lakes cleanup efforts to programs in Alaska--to be waste. While these programs did a lot of good for a lot of people, and while President Obama personally supported and cared about those programs, they were an example of the shared sacrifice all Americans, including the Obama administration, had to make during a severe fiscal crisis.
By emphasizing that the budget includes cuts to programs President Obama cares about, the White House seeks to demonstrate that it is participating in the shared sacrifice they are calling on all Americans to make. Additionally, they appear to be trying to counter the notion that government spending is itself inherently wasteful, just that the current economic and political climate forces us to make “tough choices.” There is also a breakup mentality in their talking points, very much like “this is hard for me, you’re a super guy / lady, I really care about you, and I hope that we can still be friends.”
On the call with progressive bloggers, I asked OMB communications chief Ken Baer what shared sacrifices the budget proposal placed on higher income Americans. Baer responded the administration’s budget proposal reduced the itemized deductions wealthier Americans could claim on their tax returns, and also raised taxes on Americans making more than $250,000 a year.
As a follow-up, I pointed out that those changes to the tax code were extremely unlikely to ever become law, given they were just extended two months ago and that Republicans now control the House of Representatives. By contrast, the cuts to programs serving lower income Americans were practically guaranteed to pass. So, the net result of the proposal is that higher income Americans won’t have to sacrifice anything.
In response, Baer said that no one thought Democrats and Republicans could work together during the lame duck, and proved everyone wrong by extending unemployment benefits.
I didn’t press the point after that, because other people deserved a chance to ask a question, but Baer’s response was extremely unsatisfactory. In December, significant numbers of Democrats and Republicans in Congress worked together to lower taxes for wealthier Americans, not raise them as this budget proposal would like. This demonstrated how there is virtually no chance at all of passing any tax increase on wealthier Americans during the 112th Congress, making any notion of the 2012 budget including “shared sacrifice” for higher income Americans a fantasy. Lower income Americans will disproportionately bear the brunt of these cuts.
For the full White House blogger call experience, Susie Madrak of has an audio file of the call at Crooks and Liars, which you can listen to here. Additionally, Sam Stein of the Huffington Post has latched onto an interesting slip-up by David Plouffe on the blogger call. Plouffe said that the Obama administration opposed “reducing” Social Security benefits, before quickly returning to the standard White House talking point about opposing “slashes” to benefits. I don’t know how much we should read into that slip-up, but perhaps it is incremental progress in the defense of Social Security.