Obama Budget Vs. March Jobs Report: Timing is No Coincidence

Jill Lawrence
National Journal

Well, that certainly answers the "Why now?" question.

President Obama’s budget is not coming out until Wednesday, but already we have some details of what he’ll be proposing — including money-saving changes in Social Security and Medicare that are winning him praise from at least one tough critic.

That news, so unusual in a Democratic president’s official spending blueprint, came a few hours before the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced its downer of a March jobs report. The economy added only 88,000 jobs, less than half what some had predicted.

Since the president is notified of the jobs numbers the day before they are released, the White House knew it was going to face bad news Friday morning that would dominate media chatter through the weekend if it was out there alone. The budget proposal provides stiff competition on the fiscal-news front and could turn out to be far more significant to the fate of the nation than the March jobs report.

Republicans have been looking for signs that they could trust Obama on entitlements. His plans to trim Social Security benefits and raise Medicare charges for wealthier recipients are not new — they were on the table during his negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner in 2011 and they’ve been mentioned in brief on the White House website for weeks — but offering specifics in an official budget document takes his commitment to another level.

The “ask” of Republicans is that they agree to more spending on infrastructure (likely to be promoted by White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer as a way to create both short-term and long-term jobs in appearances Sunday on Fox and ABC) and new taxes on the wealthy, corporations, and cigarettes. Both parts of that equation are stretches for Republicans, since they are focused on spending cuts and almost all of them have signed a pledge to never, ever raise taxes.

But Obama’s budget is also a stretch. Tellingly, the first reaction to his proposals came from the left. "You can't call yourself a Democrat and support Social Security benefit cuts,” Stephanie Taylor, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said in a statement. Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn.org, called the plan “unconscionable” and “outrageous.” Both groups threatened primary challenges to any congressional Democrat who supported Obama’s ideas.

Still, many Democrats accept that we need to curb the growth of entitlement spending and would be willing to accept Obama’s ideas if they were matched by Republican agreement to raise taxes — the “balanced” approach which Obama promoted during his campaign and which polls show is supported by a majority of the public. Furthermore, Obama’s plan would reportedly include protections for low-income and very old seniors. So the main effect of the liberal dismay likely will be to make Obama seem like a reasonable centrist unafraid to confront his base.

Boehner’s initial reaction to the budget details was harsh. He said Obama’s offers “never lived up to his rhetoric” when the pair were negotiating in 2011, and said the “modest entitlement savings” the president is now suggesting should not be “held hostage for more tax hikes.” For now, that gives Senate Republicans responsibility to lead the movement toward a long-term debt-reduction compromise.

A number of them are displaying interest in a deal, even one that would raise some taxes. And Boehner has shown he will sometimes let the House vote on packages that have won broad Senate support. So there is at least a chance that Obama’s blueprint, rather than being dead on arrival, will lead to talks and, if we are lucky, an achievement that gives both parties reason to brag.