Jim Wallis repeats the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: "A budget is a moral document."
In the first three years of the Clinton White House, there were two memorable budget wars, in 1993 and 1995. The open fights with the Republicans were brutal, highest-of-high stakes white-knuckle showdowns where Clinton’s entire Presidency was on the line. Behind the scenes, though, our internal fights inside the White House were almost as intense. One thing I will never forget was a meeting where my old friend Bob Boorstin, one of the earliest staffers to join Clinton’s campaign, was fighting to keep some important line items in place that would help the poor, and bluntly told President Clinton, “Your budget represents your values.”
While those of us fighting for more spending to help low- and middle-income people lost a few rounds in these internal debates, we won more than we lost, and in both 1993 and 1995 the budgets Clinton presented and the ones he ended up negotiating with Congress were quite progressive. The 1993 budget raised taxes on the wealthy, lowered taxes on the poor through a big expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, and increased investment in programs like education, the environment, Head Start, and Student Grants and Loans. In the 1995 budget showdown with the Republicans in Congress, Clinton rejected the advice of people like Mark Penn that he avoid a showdown, and decided to draw a line in the sand to save “Medicare, Medicaid, Education, and the Environment” from cuts Gingrich wanted to impose, and he decisively won that battle. In all of the budgets that Clinton proposed and negotiated with Congress while President, he (for the most part) embraced Democratic values.
Twenty years after Clinton’s first epic budget battle, our current Democratic president is wrestling with what budget to propose to Congress. The House and the Senate have already proposed radically different ideas of what a budget should look like, so obviously what Obama proposes is just one part of a much longer budget debate, but symbolically, as a presentation of his values, it remains a very important moment. The president has been spending the last year and a half talking about how he wants to fight for the middle class, and his budget should reflect those values.
This is why it is so deeply troubling, as the Wall Street Journal and other news outlets are now reporting, that Obama is strongly considering putting a Social Security cut into his budget document. By doing this, the President can no longer fall back on what he has been telling progressives and Democrats in Congress, that he doesn’t want to cut Social Security but is willing to trade it for some good things that the Republicans would give up in a budget deal. By embracing- embracing! Social Security cuts as part of his budget, his statement of values, the President is telling the American public, senior citizens, and progressives that he wants to cut what they overwhelmingly and passionately support.
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