Obama takes cues from Clinton? The end of big government (again)

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama is mimicking Bill Clinton as he downplays many progressive priorities in his run towards the 2012 election.

Obama’s new budget-cutting rhetoric is causing heartburn for progressives, even though there’s little evidence that he will reduce his efforts to win greater government control of the nation’s health, education and energy sectors.

On Friday, Obama appeared before waiting cameras to laud the budget deal, which he described as “a budget that invests in our future while making the largest annual spending cut in our history.” But he justified the cuts by saying they’re needed to preserve big government: “Beginning to live within our means is the only way to protect those investments that will help America compete for new jobs — investments in our kids’ education and student loans, in clean energy and life-saving medical research.”

This fiscal two-step is similar to Clinton’s policies following his disastrous 1994 loss of the House to resurgent Republicans. In January 1996, Clinton accepted the GOP’s advance by declaring that “the era of big government is over.” But Clinton paired his small-government rhetoric with continued promises of government spending for a few poll-tested priorities. For example, in the October 1996 presidential debate against Republican Sen. Robert Dole, Clinton told viewers, “Let’s balance the budget and protect Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment.”

Clinton’s strategy worked, even though turnout among progressives was poor, and turnout among all voters reached a historic low of 50 percent.

The generally contented public returned all but two of 230 GOP members, keeping the House and its the appropriations committee firmly under GOP control, but also reelected Clinton, 49 percent to 41 percent. The resulting divided government agreed to disagree, and from 1996 to 2000, Republicans and Democrats opposed each others’ new proposals while a fast-growing economy erased the federal budget deficit.

Clinton’s success may not be repeatable, because today’s circumstances are very different. There’s an economic slough, not a boom. There’s far more skepticism about the reach and effectiveness of government, broad public opposition to the president’s increased power over the health sector, a much more active GOP base, and more worry about international economic competition.

But what is already being repeated is progressives’ worry that budget cuts will slow their push to dominate the nation’s market economy.

The deal cut 2011 spending by almost 1 percent and legitimized the Tea Party’s push to reduce government expenditures. That trajectory was lauded by many Republicans, but damned by many Democrats, including 42 House Democrats who voted against the deal on Friday night. Democratic boosters, including New York Times opinion-setter Paul Krugman; Robert Reich, who worked as Bill Clinton’s labor secretary; and progressive policy adviser Drew Westen also complained about the deal.

In a Saturday statement, Planned Parenthood declined to thank Obama for preserving its funding, but instead applauded “the members of Congress who stood up for women’s health and the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have lent their voices to stop this extreme proposal.” In the week before the the deal, it organized rallies, ran advertising campaigns and pressured legislators to support its federal funding of roughly $300 million per year.

The final deal seems to have shielded Planned Parenthood — which earned 2009 profits of $85 million on revenue of $1 billion — as well as taxpayer-funded radio and the Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon-regulation projects. White House officials also diverted GOP proposals to shrink the Democrats’ prized health-sector project.

But progressives remain deeply concerned about the president’s trajectory from December onwards. In a December tax deal, Obama reversed his vocal opposition to the broad taxes cuts pushed through by George W. Bush. the result was a continuation of broad tax cuts for poor and middle-class families.

Progressives fear that two upcoming budget fights will prompt Obama to further slow down government spending. These fights are the pending vote to raise the ceiling on the national debt, and votes on the 2012 budget.

As these disputes rapidly near, White House officials are repeatedly declaring their willingness to work with GOP spending cutters. Officials say the budget cut of $38.5 billion is really a $79.5 billion cut, because the president had originally asked in early 2010 for extra spending of $40 billion. “The president is being clear that we need serious debt reduction,” White House political adviser David Plouffe told Fox News’ Sunday show. “He’s going to lay out an approach this week … [while preserving] our ability to invest at the level we need to in things like research, development, education.”

His new budget plan, to be announced in a Wednesday speech, will even consider a “look at Medicare and Medicaid [to] see what kind of savings you can get,” Plouffe said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Yet Plouffe also defended the Democrats’ regulation of the health sector, which he said will generate $1 trillion in savings over 10 years.

GOP legislators and advocates scoff at that promise of savings. Citing various reports, they say that the health-sector law will increase government spending by $1 trillion over the next decade, and that it will help expand government regulation to many formerly private matters.

Progressives will complain, say Democratic pollsters. But they won’t want a Republican to gain power in 2012, and there’s much that Obama’s election team can to d goose progressive turnout. One high-profile element are calls for increased taxation of wealthier Americans. Obama’s 2012 budget, said Plouffe, “says for upper income Americans, he does believe that they need to contribute to the deficit reduction in this country.”