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Analysis: Obama budget tries to have it both ways

Wednesday - 3/5/2014, 10:48am  ET

President Barack Obama waves to preschool students as he follows teacher Laura Steinmetz during his visit to the classroom at Powell Elementary School in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Obama visited the school to talk about his fiscal 2015 budget proposal, which was released today. Powell elementary has seen rapid growth in recent years and serves a predominantly Hispanic student body. Washington DC Mayor Vincent Gray, who greeted Obama at the school, recently directed $20 million to Powell for a planned modernization and addition. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

DAVID ESPO
AP Special Correspondent

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama is trying to have it both ways with an election-year budget that pays faint lip service to reducing federal deficits while piling on about $1 trillion in tax increases and hundreds of billions in higher spending designed to appeal to economically squeezed voters rather than congressional foes of red ink.

Few, if any, of the proposals Obama sent to Congress on Tuesday are likely to be enacted into law before next fall's elections. But that's not the point.

The objective is political rather than legislative -- a book-length compendium of proposals meant to give Democratic congressional candidates a campaign platform at a time when economic disparity is a major concern for millions trying to dig out from the worst recession in decades.

Last year's deficit-cutting proposals "remain on the table," says the budget, referring ever so gingerly to recommended cuts in the growth of Social Security benefits. Asserting the "Republicans' unwillingness to negotiate a balanced long-term deficit reduction deal," it adds the president is now turning toward "the best path to create growth and opportunity for all Americans."

Shifting priorities means a budget that never balances at any point in the next decade, lays waste to the spending caps that the White House and Congress agreed to late last year and imposes higher taxes on the wealthy to pay for more spending on programs that benefit those further down the income ladder. Education, job training, child care, transportation, tax breaks for lower-income millions of Americans and more would receive increased funding.

The White House refers to this approach -- including raising the minimum wage -- as "the best path to create growth and opportunity for all Americans."

Not surprisingly, Republicans call it something different.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, said Obama "has once again opted for the political stunt -- for a budget that's more about firing up the president's base in an election year than about solving the nation's biggest and most persistent long-term challenges."

By that, he means the growth of benefit programs and federal deficits.

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said House Republicans will offer an alternative "that balances, promotes opportunity, reforms our tax code, saves our critical safety net programs and places a priority on creating jobs, not more government."

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the chairman of the House Budget Committee, has already let it be known he is looking at changes to the welfare system. Coincidentally or not, that was the area on which congressional Republicans and former President Bill Clinton ultimately reached a major compromise almost two decades ago.

For now, Democrats are no doubt ready to pounce on whatever budget Republicans produce. The theory is that if the GOP indeed comes up with a serious no-tax-increase attack on deficits, the inescapable result must be cuts in social programs.

Cue the campaign ads.

The budget maneuvering is unfolding eight months before the midterm elections, which historically favor the party not in control of the White House, and as the GOP looks confidently to renewing its House majority and hopes to seize control of the Senate, as well.

Members of Obama's party must do something to shake up the trend lines.

Enter the budget -- and the contrast Democrats hope to set up with a Republican alternative. That would be far better, in their view, than an election that is a referendum on the slow recovery from the deepest recession in decades, Obama's general stewardship across five years in office, the health care law and whatever else is contributing to the curdled national mood.

The polling is instructive on that point.

The most recent soundings of the public mood include a two-week-old CBS-New York Times poll that reported only 32 percent of those polled believe the country is headed in the right direction, compared with 63 percent who said it is in the wrong track. Those findings were consistent with a 28-63 finding by NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll about a month earlier and a 35-64 result when an AP-GfK survey asked the question in mid-January.

Obama's approval ratings have risen somewhat since a fall several months ago that coincided with the catastrophic unveiling of the website for the health care law that goes by his name. The AP-GfK poll showed that 45 percent of those polled approved of his performance and 53 percent disapproved. The CBS/New York Times polls had it 43-51, and an ABC-Washington Post poll returned a finding of 46 percent favorable and 50 percent unfavorable.

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