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Budget good will: Vanished without a trace

By Gloria Borger, Senior Political Analyst
  • Gloria Borger: President Barack Obama stayed above the fray in lame-duck session
  • She says he returned to partisan politics with Wednesday's budget speech
  • The Obama speech will hurt efforts to achieve compromise on long-term deficits, she says
  • Borger: Obama did it to shore up Democratic base, concerned about spending cuts

Editor's note: Gloria Borger is a senior political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "AC360°," "John King, USA" and "State of the Union."

Washington (CNN) -- In a way, President Barack Obama's budget speech Wednesday was all about timing: He had played the adult in a successful congressional lame-duck session in December. He reprised the role in averting the government shutdown crisis.

In the meantime, House Republicans had delivered a politically risky budget, calling for the transformation of Medicare into a voucher program -- and no tax increases for the wealthy. They would vote on the highly flammable political proposition in a day or two.

Time to slip in a presidential moment.

Or, more precisely, a jarring presidential campaign moment.

Don't get me wrong: We hire presidents to take sides in huge national fights with high stakes. In fact, it's a job requirement. But it's pretty clear that Obama came to this game a tad late -- after his own budget punted on entitlement reform and after the president barely nodded a compliment or two to the important work done by his deficit commission.

Borger: budget good will 'vanished'
Obama's budget plan
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So it was time to show seriousness of purpose, which is what the public wants. Yet there was another need in the Obama camp: to show that the president was still a Democrat despite all the spending cuts he negotiated in the last budget round. His base was anxious, no matter how happy he had made those indie voters over the last few months. And Republicans, after all, had given him a perfect opportunity -- with their budget -- to chant the party mantra.

So forget the I'm-the-adult-who-can-work-with-both-sides oration. Instead, the president who had lately been more Clark Kent than Superman underwent a transformation -- strutting his stuff as a Democratic defender of Medicare and opponent of tax cuts for the wealthy. And while there was the predictable refrain of "I believe we can and must come together again," most of the speech was filled with declarations about what Obama will not allow: "I will not allow Medicare to become a voucher program that leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry," the president said. And, by the way, what about those tax cuts for the wealthy? "I refuse to renew them again."

Take that, heathen Republicans.

That Obama would feel this way is not startling. Yet the neon declarations were, well, a bit bright coming from the recently bipartisan-sounding Obama. It's enough to make you wonder where that partisan Obama had been hiding, and whether he should actually go back there for a few more months -- until something gets accomplished. One depressed Republican strategist -- who had been pushing his party to compromise with Obama -- tells me, "This is the worst thing he could have done. Republicans are furious. Does he actually realize what he did? "

The president could well have undermined the compromise he professes to want and certainly needs.
--Gloria Borger
  • Barack Obama
  • Federal Budget
  • Republican Party
  • Taxes
  • Medicare

Sure he does. The White House, under assault from its left flank -- some of whom threaten to bolt on the 2011 budget deal just worked out -- decided to speak with the moral clarity the left had complained was lacking. Except, in doing so, the president could well have undermined the compromise he professes to want and certainly needs. And he may also have diminished any chance that a bipartisan compromise to be proposed by the "Gang of Six" senators goes anywhere.

Politically speaking, there's no doubt the Republicans handed Obama a juicy opportunity: a budget that takes on Medicare while keeping the tax cuts for the wealthy. No one has to remind any Democrat -- least of all those working in the White House -- about the success the GOP had in taking on Democratic candidates who voted for Medicare cuts as part of health reform. "We know the (Rep. Paul) Ryan plan is going to cost us," says one House Republican. "But we had to come up with something serious after complaining that the Democrats had done nothing on entitlements."

And so they did.

And so Obama couldn't resist the urge to take them on, even as the idea of compromise was making headway.

And, by the way, it's not as if Obama's speech was just a trivial denouncement of GOP ideas. It wasn't. It was definitional -- and potentially important -- especially if Congress can eventually find its way to coming up with a version of tax reform. Indeed, his outline had a good balance to it between spending cuts and tax increases (at a ratio of about 3-to-1), cuts in defense spending and investments in the future, such as education.

But will the president's over-my-dead-body denouncements of the GOP undermine any kind of grand compromise? Or even hurt the looming battle over budget cuts when it comes time to raise the debt ceiling?

Good will is never in great supply in Washington. On Wednesday, it may have vanished, without a trace.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.

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