President Obama's proposal to freeze spending for three years didn't seem to excite anyone, but liberals denounced it with special swiftness and anger. It's not hard to understand why: Obama has explicitly opposed a spending freeze, arguing that economic recovery comes from pumping money into the economy, not shutting down the programs he says are foundational for growth. His about-face looks to many like a political gambit that goes against basic liberal economics.
Matthew Yglesias is certainly among the skeptics, but paused to give the spending freeze a serious, objective look on both political and policy grounds. This led him to two major insights that gradually swept the rest of the liberal blogosphere. The first, on political grounds, is that the White House wants liberals to explode. "I suspect this initiative was deliberately leaked to progressive bloggers in an effort to get denounced by the left," he writes. This would make it easier for the White House to appeal to moderates and conservatives who might like Obama breaking with the right.
On the policy of the freeze, Yglesias's take is a bit more complicated. He suggests that the White House could find worthy budgetary targets like farm subsidies, which are generally considered wasteful but still soak up massive funds because they have a lot of political clout behind them. But, in one of Washington's many ironies, Congress's self-described deficit hawks, who have long pressured Obama on the deficit, tend to come from states that rely heavily on farm subsidies. If Obama proposes freezing farm subsidies and Congress balks, then the responsibility for the deficit shifts to Congress and Obama looks like the deficit hawk. If Congress acquiesces, Obama will be able to declare real victory in reducing a wasteful measure that has existed since President Nixon's tenure.
Yglesias's most optimistic takes seem to assume that the White House is playing a sort of nine-dimensional chess on both the politics and the policy. He allows for the possibility of far less positive scenarios. If Yglesias is right, he will have been the only one to spot Obama's game.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.