The Good Ship Obama is now entering perilous waters as it moves from short-term emergency measures — the economic stimulus package and its proposed toxic-assets bailout — to longer-term issues which will go through a normal legislative process.
The waters are particularly perilous because it will be 30-60 days before we see if hedge funds and others are willing to take the plunge to purchase at discount the so-called toxic assets, mainly mortgage-backed securities, in order to get them off the books of financial houses and thus enable them to open again their lending windows.
Against this uncertain background, President Obama Tuesday night presented his proposed budget. The budget is based on optimistic economic assumptions. Even under those assumptions, it would drive the annual federal deficit to $1.4 trillion next year and would require federal borrowing of $4.4 trillion over the next five years. Deficits would become much deeper in the five years after that.
Obama reiterated in his Tuesday press conference the basic point he has made about his budget since the Denver Democratic convention last summer: Namely, that his long-term health care, energy, and education initiatives — although not related directly to near-term economic renewal — are necessary to long-term economic growth and thus must be pursued no matter what the present economic situation. My first reaction, on hearing the Denver proposals, was that Obama quickly would amend them on taking office, reexamining his agenda in light of the economic realities of January 20, 2009. But he has not done so.
Two questions arise: Does Obama recognize that his ambitious agenda cannot be financed in the current economic climate? Presuming that he indeed recognizes it, is he pressing his longer-term goals now as a tactic to move them along even if they cannot practically be enacted in the next two years? The risk of Obama's path, of course, is that both Republicans and Democrats will panic in the face of huge looming deficits and stop the longer-term agenda before it can gain any traction.
Obama's fellow Congressional Democrats already are becoming restive. Senators Evan Bayh, Tom Carper, and Blanche Lincoln announced last week formation of a 16-member group of Democratic Senators dedicated to working inside their party's caucus to formulate policies which would "find common ground with reasonable Republicans" lest the Obama agenda "be filibustered into oblivion." Their statement asserted that "nearly half the U.S. electorate calls itself moderate and more than half of the rest identify themselves as conservative....Many of them live in our states and in states of other Senators who have joined our group." Their statement closed by warning that 1993-4 history could be repeated in 2010 — that is, that a new Democratic President's ambitious agenda could be rejected and, along with it, Democratic congressional candidates seeking reelection.
Meanshile, House Democrats Wednesday unveiled their own budget for the next fiscal year. It would create a deficit $200 million less than Obama's plan and, over the next five years, would require federal borrowing of $3.9 trillion rather than $4.4 trillion. Sen. Kent Conrad, chair of the Senate Budget Committee, presented his own plan to a luncheon meeting yesterday of Senate Democrats. Its cuts in the Obama budget would be deeper than those in the House version. The Conrad plan was forthcoming after 12 Democratic Senators sent him a letter complaining that "the deficits projected by the Congressional Budget Office (in the Obama plan) are simply not acceptable."
The situation is clear. It will take 60 Senate votes to approve a budget. With that many Democrats peeling away from the present Obama plan, it has no chance unless substantially revised.
Congressional Democrats, on the other hand, are not eager to thwart their new President's initiatives at so early a stage. They will attempt to keep his education, health, and energy initiatives alive without funding them at requested levels.
Congressional Republicans, on the other hand, are more likely to play hardball with the Obama proposals. Obama challenged them, in his Tuesday press conference, to come up with their own alternative plan. They no doubt will, and it will be far tougher on his agenda than his fellow Democrats have been.
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