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Judy’s Notebook: A Budget to Get Worked Up About

photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Copies of US President Barack Obama’s Fiscal Year 2014 Budget proposal wait to be distributed to Senate staff on Capitol Hill Wednesday. Photo credit SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The very words “federal budget” make most of us yawn.

The idea of looking at a list of numbers with dollar amounts noted (in the millions), references to baselines and fiscal assumptions, recently joined by the infamous sequester and now the “chained CPI,” is enough to impel the most studious of us to turn the page, or click on the next story as quickly as our fingers can move.

Indeed, President Obama’s budget proposal for 2014 was delivered two months late; it was “due” in February, but the White House explained that the prolonged wrangling with Congress over the fiscal cliff — and, yes, the sequester — delayed the process. Knowing that presidential budget proposals are almost always pronounced dead on arrival as soon as they’re made public probably didn’t speed things up.

But I’d argue that at 244 pages (not counting appendices and “supplementals”), according to the website of the Office of Management and Budget, and with a proposed $3.77 trillion in spending “suggestions,” the choices Mr. Obama has made make for exciting reading.

Republicans seized on tax changes that would hit high-income earners hardest, mainly by limiting the amount of allowed deductions. They continued to insist that Mr. Obama is too fixated on raising revenues, and not enough on cutting spending. Some also accused the president of tailoring the budget to help congressional Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections.

But the more hostile reactions came from Democrats and their allies, who bristled at cuts they don’t like, especially in entitlement programs. Normally friendly members of Congress like New York’s Jerrold Nadler told the Huffington Post that the administration’s move to use a less generous measure of inflation to calculate future Social Security benefits “is terrible.” Nadler said, “Here’s the first proposal by a Democratic president to start undoing the New Deal,” adding that he hopes his party rejects it.

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, who campaigned hard for Mr. Obama’s re-election, called the same feature “wrong and indefensible.” Trumka said the plan wasn’t what people voted for in November. “A president’s budget is more than just numbers. It is a profoundly moral document.” He accused Mr. Obama of “exempting corporate America from shared sacrifice.”

This new formula for calculating cost-of-living increases for benefits like Social Security would save $230 billion over 10 years, and would appear to be a move in the direction of Republicans who’ve accused the president of not being willing to take a bite out of programs many Democrats consider sacred.

Even so, most Republicans still aren’t giving him credit for the proposal, dismissing it as small potatoes.

Still, by taking on his own political party, Mr. Obama demonstrates he’s ready to see at least some of the fight joined over what the federal government’s role is in caring for the elderly, now that Americans are living longer and resources are strained. It didn’t take long for the debate to rekindle over whether the president “really” holds progressive values or not. House Democratic leaders were careful in their comments, but made it plain they’re not thrilled with this declaration by their leader.

Buried in that thick budget document are ideas that have consequences. And if leading players in both parties start to discuss them, things could get exciting around here.

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