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LAMBRO: Mr. President, a scalpel won’t do the job

Obama is unprepared to make the deep cuts fiscal necessity requires

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House Speaker John A. Boehner extracted more budget concessions from President Obama and the Democrats than was at first evident when the deal was announced last week.

He squeezed not only nearly $40 billion out of this fiscal year's remaining budget but also another $40 billion in increases Mr. Obama had proposed for agency budgets that Congress never agreed to accept.

The deal Mr. Boehner negotiated for fiscal 2011 means that spending this year will be $78.5 billion less than what Mr. Obama requested last year from the Democratic-run Congress, which failed to enact any budget. In one key respect, Mr. Boehner and the Republicans did what the Democrats irresponsibly refused to do: cut spending.

While these sums pale in the face of a $3.7 trillion annual budget that is running a record $1.6 trillion deficit and $14 trillion in debt, the GOP's interim victory has thrown Mr. Obama and the Democrats on the defensive as they enter a critical two-year presidential election cycle with Mr. Obama's job-approval scores falling dangerously into the mid-40s and 23 Senate Democrats - a number of whom are vulnerable - up for re-election next year.

Mr. Obama, who proudly called Mr. Boehner's budget deal "the largest spending cut in our history," is turning himself into what Washington Post political reporter Dan Balz called "a born-again budget cutter."

In the aftermath of the deal, the White House was scrambling to reposition the president on spending and soaring debt, which their own polls show are fast turning into a Mount Everest-size political issue endangering his re-election prospects.

Suddenly, Mr. Obama was more tightly embracing the proposals of his presidential budget reform commission, which he had kept at arm's length - speaking warmly about its provisions to scuttle a raft of tax breaks and other loopholes in exchange for lowering the corporate and individual tax rates.

He was practically sending love letters to the bipartisan "Gang of Six" senators who were working behind the scenes to come up with a compromise 2012 budget based on the commission's report. Trouble is, they have not been able to reach an agreement.

"It's pretty hard for [Mr. Obama] to hitch himself to something that doesn't exist yet," said Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, a waste-fighting Republican member of the gang. "There's nothing I've agreed to that could be announced this week," Mr. Coburn said.

Mr. Obama is expected to lay out his latest budget plans in a major speech here Wednesday, but, as is his style, he isn't going to get his hands dirty on any specifics. Instead, he will speak only in broad themes, his advisers said. Such is "leadership" in the age of Obama.

On Sunday the White House sent out Mr. Obama's senior political adviser, David Plouffe, to the morning talk shows, saying Mr. Obama would cut the budget with "a scalpel, not a machete." It was both a message of reassurance to Mr. Obama's liberal base that he would not touch the social welfare and entitlements that are the holy grails of the Democrats and also a campaign promise that his boss offered the country a barely noticeable, cosmetic approach to the budget that could best be described as Obama lite.

Predictably, though, Mr. Obama will put away the scalpel and bring out his Hawaiian-style machete to slash the tax cuts he agreed to last year. Good luck on raising taxes in a fragile economy with $4-a-gallon gasoline, rising food prices, declining wages and nearly 9 percent unemployment.

Mr. Obama built this mountain of spending and debt, and it's going to take a great deal more than a tummy tuck or a nose job.

Since 2007, the year before the Great Recession struck, spending has risen by $1.1 trillion, while the budget deficit went from a modest $161 billion to $1.6 trillion under Mr. Obama's leadership, leaving a long line of trillion-dollar-plus deficits for the rest of this decade and beyond.

Mr. Obama's 2012 budget proposals, which escaped serious scrutiny, predicted the deficits would drop to $772 billion by 2022.

But the University of Maryland's ace economist, Peter Morici, who has crunched the numbers, says "that forecast is dubious, because it assumes 4 percent [economic] growth . . . which few economists would endorse, and cuts in Medicare payments to physicians and hospitals [that] few political observers believe will materialize."

Now comes the heavy lifting and the far bigger spending battles - raising the debt ceiling and passing next year's budget - with the Republicans holding the stronger hand.

It is generally conceded that Congress will raise the debt ceiling because the world's largest economy is not going to default on its debts. But not before further spending restrictions are added to the bill that Mr. Obama will have to sign.

The next major heavyweight fight will be over the 2012 budget. It's already begun with the House Budget Committee's blueprint, which cuts or freezes virtually every government program.

The Democratic-run Senate, fearful of losing yet another budget fight, has yet to produce its own version, though the betting in this corner is that Congress will pass a budget that gets tough on spending and that those who would vote against it do so at their own political peril.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and former chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.

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