Obama 2.0: Playing Small, Thinking Big

It’s that time of year when the White House rolls out select samplers, small pieces of the big new federal budget the president will propose to Congress.

This is, after all, a roughly $4 trillion package.

So the $140 million for two manufacturing innovation initiatives led by the Defense Department in the Midwest, which President Barack Obama plans to offer in the budget he delivers to Congress on March 4, is relatively small ball. Bloomberg’s Angela Greiling Keane writes that the White House will roll this out on Tuesday.

Yet, with an institute to be located in the Detroit area focusing on  “lightweight and modern metals manufacturing” — aluminum, titanium and high-strength steel manufacturers working with universities and labs on research and development — and with a digital manufacturing institute in Chicago hosting manufacturing and software companies developing “interoperable software and hardware for supply chains and to reduce manufacturing costs,” this could be the start of something big. Certainly the 41 companies that will be part of the consortium, including Boeing Co. and Caterpillar Inc., must think so.

At the same time, the White House will propose “an election-year spending blueprint,” as Bloomberg’s Roger Runningen and Richard Rubin call it,  “leaving out a proposal to reduce cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security and other benefit programs, while adding $56 billion for domestic and defense programs and seeking more revenue through taxes. ”

Details released last week “indicate that Obama isn’t counting on reaching a so-called grand bargain with Republicans in Congress to reduce U.S. debt and will press ahead with spending plans for education, job training and research that he says will bolster middle-income Americans.

“There was a point in time when there was a little bit more optimism about the willingness of Republicans to budge on closing some tax loopholes, but over the course of the last year, they’ve refused to do that,”  says Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman.

Republicans, Runningen and Rubin report, blame the White House for the impasse. Obama’s decision on cost-of-living increases for government programs shows “no interest in doing anything, even modest, to address our looming debt crisis,” says Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.

Then there is that big question of climate change.

The president is attempting to to press regulations through the Environmental Protection Agency curbing carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. Studies forecast a 3.6-degree Fahrenheit warming of the planet by the century’s end, thanks to the burning of fossil fuels.

The Forest Service says the warming climate is likely to encourage a 50 percent increase in wildfires across the country — and 100 percent in the Western states — by 2050, the New York Times notes in a weekend report about another small piece of the president’s budget: Authorizing the federal government to pay for the fighting of wildfires the way it pays for other natural disasters. The Times says the president will roll this out at a Washington meeting of Western governors.

That federal wildfire funding runs to about $3.5 billion a year now.

In the realm of a second-term president facing midterm congressional elections that could cost his party control of the Senate — with the president’s own health care initiative serving as the fodder that Republicans hope to use against incumbent Democrats in key states — the White House cannot hope to get much of anything very big out of that election-year Congress. These budget proposals from a president, even in easier times, seldom come out of Congress the way they go in.

“Obamacare,” as it may forever be known, was the big budgetary and social product of the first-term Obama.

Simply averting the Affordable Health Care Act’s unraveling could be the big success of Obama 2.0.

Until the question of political control for the second half of the president’s second term is settled, it’s unlikely that anything big will come of any budget talks.

The White House is more likely to keep its long-range eyes on the big pictures of reenergizing the economy and defusing the threat of climate change — and maybe even accomplishing something in immigration next year — while hoping for the best with some small solutions in the meantime.

It’ll be an interim budget, at best.


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