President Obama's budget is heading to Congress. Many news outlets trumpet this as a salvo in the 2012 election fight that is going to shape the debate. In fact, the opposite is true: the debate has already shaped the budget. Far from presenting a plan to challenge the conversation, the President's budget fits perfectly into the current national discourse.
What that really means is that the President, his advisers, and his re-election team are feeling pretty good about the way 2012 is going.
With a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases—including an income tax increase for the wealthiest Americans—it affirms established spending priorities, offers an approach to deficit reduction and takes small steps toward greater fairness in the American economy. In other words, it matches what the President described in the State of the Union Address several weeks ago.
While the President's budget in an election year should be a big story—and for the sake of a 24/7 news cycle, it will be ballyhooed as such—what is the story, exactly? That Republicans in Congress won't like it? That's no surprise. They haven't liked anything the President has presented, no matter how far their direction he's come. That Democrats will be disappointed? The members of the Progressive Caucus are already accustomed to being disappointed by this Administration—but will be more pleased by the emphasis on revenue in this budget that they might have been a year or two ago.
In other words, President Obama isn't charting a new course. Why should he? With momentum in his favor, he knows he needs to keep doing what he's doing: setting a trap for the GOP presidential hopefuls and the extremists who run the House Republican Caucus.
Representative Paul Ryan is sure to be among the first to attack the President's plan. Just one year ago, Ryan's own proposal was so radical that it was called "social engineering" by Newt Gingrich; it scared Medicare-minded voters into electing Democrat Kathy Hochul in a special election in upstate New York. The Democrats have their fingers crossed that Ryan's response is as rabid this year.
Next, we'll hear from Romney, Santorum, Gingrich and Paul, all of whom will call the budget class warfare. However, in a year where economic inequality has "occupied" the debate, this line of attack falls flat...especially coming from a man for whom $350,000 is "not very much." The President knows that raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans by ending the Bush tax cuts for the very rich, or enacting new forms of a popular "Millionaires Tax," is an agreeable idea to mainstream America. His eventual opponent is about to take a big, obvious step outside the mainstream.
A year ago, deficits may have driven the debate, but the overreaching assaults on workers in Wisconsin, Ohio and beyond, followed by the energy of Occupy Wall Street, has changed the discussion. President Obama knows better than to change the discussion any further. If economic inequality, creating a fair economy, and holding the wealthiest Americans accountable continue to be the mainstream mood, his budget, and his re-election bid, will be successful.
This budget isn't a battle. It's more of a bait. And the President is content to wait.