The coverage of the President's budget announcement today is surprising for the amount of surprise it seems to contain. The Post's David Broder is leading this Charge of the Shocked Brigade:
The size of the gambles that President Obama is taking every day is simply staggering. What came through in his speech to a joint session of Congress and a national television audience Tuesday night was a dramatic reminder of the unbelievable stakes he has placed on the table in his first month in office, putting at risk the future well-being of the country and the Democratic Party's control of Washington.
Let me summarize the rest of his column for you: how dare Obama, how DARE he, include spending on health care in his budget when the country is in a Serious Economic Downturn and is Fighting Two Wars. He accuses Obama of pursuing health care reform just because he can, right now, and ends with the line, "When we elected Obama, we didn't know what a gambler we were getting."
I have two problems with all of this surprise.
First, it misunderstands a basic tenet of Obama's Democratic vision. To pursue health care reform isn't something he's taking on in addition to the stimulus plan -- it's part of the overall Democratic effort to improve our national economy. I thought the president was pretty clear about this on Tuesday night, when he made reform of the system one of his top three economic priorities, and outlined the ways in which current rising costs hurt our economy. But David Broder and friends were apparently napping during that part of the speech, and woke only to hear the Democrats cheering -- and have therefore assumed that the only reason for pursuing this program is political.
That's an enormous leap, and one that I didn't see most of the same folks making whenever President Bush proposed some new program. Bush said, let's go to Iraq, and everyone said that was about national security. He said, let's cut taxes,, and everyone said that was about economic stimulus. Both of those proposals were very popular with Bush's political constituency, and yet I don't see the David Broders of the world saying then, "Wait, we're in a war already, we should focus on that," or "wait, we're in two wars, let's focus on that." Instead they said, "This is Bush carrying out the policies his ideology demands," which -- though a deeply troubling answer for most of us, was also true.
So Obama says, let's reform health care, like I've been talking about doing for the last two years, and he puts it in print in the form of his budget, and suddenly David Broder is shocked. Shocked!
Which leads me to my second problem with his column, and with some of the coverage of the budget in general: why so surprised, everyone, at the huge deficit numbers? Why so quick to say it's this president who's endangering our overall well-being, "gambling" with national security and stability? He's doing exactly what he said he would do in the campaign, making the same programs priorities that he pledged to, trying to maintain two wars he didn't start, and coming into the whole process with a $1.2 trillion deficit.
What bothers me in the coverage of this overall is that everyone is focused on the big number1: the Post says "Obama's spending plans would push the 2009 budget deficit to a massive $1.75 trillion." There are two ways to report this, of course, and the second way, still honest and a bit more explanatory, is, "Obama's 2009 budget will add $550 billion to the already staggering $1.2 trillion deficit." Which makes it seem a little disingenuous when Sen. Mitch McConnell calls the budget full of "unprecedented spending increases." There's precedent in the New Deal, which I understand conservatives are uncomfortable with; there's also substantial precedent in the last 8 years.
The righteous indignation and shock is, well, shocking. Why do I feel like I keep waking up to a world where the campaign never happened, where Obama just fell out of the sky for a large chunk of the Washington commentary class? Is, perhaps, their actual shock not over what Obama's doing, but at seeing a president actually do what he set out to do? Were they expecting a reversal of fiscal behavior such as that under the last president -- a renunciation of declared principles in support of unexplained priorities?
If so, I'm delighted to see Mr. Broder disappointed. I only wish he would recognize the root of his surprise -- that Obama's carrying through -- and name it as such, instead of acting like Obama is recklessly and unpredictably "gambling" with American dollars in pursuit of political gain. He's doing what we sent him to Washington to do. Just because it's rare doesn't automatically make it risky.
1 The WaPost seems particularly guilty of this. The four budget headlines running up front now: "Obama's Budget Would Raise Taxes on Wealthy," "Budget Would Limit Federal Worker, Military Raises," "Economy Watch: Budet Kills Sallie Mae Stock," "GOP Attacks Spending in Budget."