What About Obama's New Budget Is Actually New?

Very little

The president has a new budget coming out. The New York Times calls it "a significant shift in fiscal strategy." The Washington Post calls it a "stark shift in strategy." National Journal calls it "a gutsy change in strategy."

Theoretically, one would expect this document to demonstrate some sort of change in strategy.

But does it, really? The full details of the plan have been shared with some congressional leaders, and they don't become public until Wednesday next week. But the blueprint looks remarkably similar to the plans Obama has proposed -- and which subsequently failed to move through Congress.

Here was Obama's last plan. It called for significant health care cuts over the next decade, particularly by reducing payments to drug companies and hospitals. It called for changing the way we measure inflation, which would raise taxes and cut Social Security benefits slowly for some recipients. It called for replacing the sequester. And it called for immediate additional spending, focused on infrastructure.

Here's what we know about the new plan. It calls for health care cuts over the next decade, particularly by reducing payments to hospitals and other "providers." (Check.) It calls for changing the way we measure inflation, which would raise taxes and cut Social Security benefits slowly for some recipients. (Check.) It calls for replacing the sequester. (Check.) And it calls for immediate additional spending, focused on infrastructure and education aid (Check.).

So much for that gutsy changey stuff.

It sounds to me like the new plan will incorporate some of Obama's policies from the State of the Union speech -- like universal pre-K and gun control -- and try to ameliorate some Republicans by asking for slightly less revenue and framing his health care cuts as entitlement reform. But that's not hardly a "significant shift" or "gutsy change" in strategy. It's a subtle shift with a successful re-branding effort.

For months now, Washington moderates have accused the president of failing to LEAD, even as he offers compromise upon compromise to Republicans who steadfastly say they that more revenue increases are off the table (while Democrats say entitlement reform is off the table without significantly more revenue). If public perception is the better part of leadership, then perhaps today's messaging war from the White House will have its intended effect, and Republicans will move to the left on taxes. Or else, we might even hold out hope that Washington reporters might suddenly decide that Obama, having given them the budget they want with the messaging they prefer, is no longer the goat of these budget negotiations. I wouldn't bet on it. For journalists to break free of the Washington tradition of blame-both-sides false equivalence would be a truly gutsy change in strategy.


Update: I see Jon Chait made many of these points well earlier today.

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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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