The opening move

THE OPENING MOVE…. I’m reluctant to devote too much attention to President Obama’s proposed budget for the 2012 fiscal year, since we know going into the process that a Republican-led House probably won’t even read it. But it’d be a mistake to simply blow off the White House’s proposal — today’s unveiling has substantive and political significance.

On the former, the administration’s first two budgets were, by progressive standards, pretty solid documents, presented with the luxury of strong Democratic majorities. This year’s budget, obviously, comes in the wake of the midterm elections and the swearing in of the new House GOP majority.

As a result, this new budget is far less encouraging — it makes painful cuts in some areas, while boosting investments in forward-thinking priorities like infrastructure. It’s an infinitely better plan than what Republicans have talked about, but given that the GOP vision is stark raving mad, that’s setting the bar for quality at a very low point.

But as the discussion gets underway, let’s also note the politics. Jonathan Cohn had a good piece on this overnight.

The most important question about Obama’s budget, then, is how well it positions him and his allies in the coming debate over these sorts of priorities.

You could make a case that, by embracing the Republican narrative on the size of government and calling for a five-year budget freeze at present levels, Obama has effectively bid too low in the negotiation over federal spending — that he’s committed himself, and the country, to less government than it needs. (It’s happened before!) Or you could make the case that, by making “tough” proposals to cut programs he supports, he’s establishing the credibility with voters that he needs in order to marginalize the Republicans and to preserve more spending than might otherwise be possible. (It’s happened before!)

I really don’t know which argument is right.

Neither do I, but I don’t think the “establishing the credibility” tack is necessarily a mistake. I’ve criticized the Obama White House on several occasions about pre-emptive concessions, and I can see why this would fall under that umbrella — if the West Wing knows congressional Republicans are going way too far in one direction, perhaps the White House should prepare for coming negotiations by moving aggressively in the other direction, pushing spending increased on everything, better positioning the president to reach a more progressive compromise.

But Obama’s preferred approach is about making him appear reasonable against GOP extremism. As the fight progresses, the president will tell the public, “I presented a budget plan with deep cuts, even to programs I care about, which will lower the deficit considerably. Instead of working on a sensible compromise, Republicans are going too far and now want to shut down the government.” The point is to push the GOP into fighting the White House to do some very unpopular things — things the president and his team suspect Republicans will drop when push comes to shove, for fear of a public backlash.

The last time there was a budget showdown like this one was 1995. The new Republican majority overreached, overplayed a weak hand, and lost the public. The likelihood of seeing this play out a similar way 16 years later appears fairly strong.