In (Partial) Defense of Obama's Spending Cut Gimmick

President Obama has asked Congress to give him the authority to pare down spending packages and toss them back to Congress for a quick up or down vote. This would let the president burnish his frugal bona fides and give the White House some ammunition when Republicans accuse them of Big Government.

It is a small step toward thrift, but don't expect hosannas from the deficit birds on either side of the aisle. Conservatives are chuckling at the idea that a soft edit of the budget will significantly rein in spending. They're right, it won't. Liberals will no doubt kvetch that with consumer spending weak and unemployment high, it isn't the time to reduce spending. They're right, it's not.

At the risk of sounding like the platonic ideal of a TNR column, both sides are right for the wrong reasons. The president has spoken out against the deficit, as if it's a real enemy (he knows it's not). He also knows that 2010's deficit will almost certainly surpass a key emotional threshold for Americans of one trillion dollars. As a result, he has no choice but to fill his deficit-fighting arsenal with water guns and Nerf arrows designed to (1) look like real weapons and (2) not rein in the deficit.

If passed, the proposal might eliminate some dumb earmarks and retain the vast majority of spending approved by Congress. On the whole, that's a good thing. It's hard to find folks stepping up to praise an admittedly gimmicky and probably inconsequential face-saving gesture by the administration. But having acknowledged that it's admittedly gimmicky, probably inconsequential, and face-saving, I don't mind it, for precisely that reason. Ideally, the admin would get its nice optics, and states would get their stabilization funds. This year's deficit should still be higher, and this act wouldn't stop that.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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