At its finest, a president’s budget proposal is an expression of values, aspirations, hopes, and dreams for the country. At its most effective, it also offers politically practical mechanisms for achieving some of those aspirations.
President Obama recently released a $4.1 trillion budget proposal for his last year in office. Is it just more “hopey-changey stuff,” as the relentlessly un-hopey-changey Sarah Palin once quipped? Or is Obama’s new budget request something more substantially hopeful, with a real chance at change?
There just may be some of both hope and change to celebrate.
First, Obama deserves praise for taking the problem of economic hardship seriously. His budget includes a strong focus on the people most often left out of consideration — those in deep poverty. Obama proposes $12 billion over the coming decade to keep hungry kids fed in the summer time when schools are out. He’s requested $11 billion end family homelessness by 2020. He’s also increased funding, previously frozen for 20 years, for the notoriously unresponsive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. Medicare is also bolstered with this budget.
The budget offers some hope for both families with and without kids. It increases the effective Earned Income Tax Credit for hard-working Americans without children while also providing $82 billion over 10 years to help working parents secure safe affordable child care. It supports funding for much needed early childhood education programs as well as for raising the minimum wage, even for tipped workers as well as those who rely on federal unemployment insurance. The budget calls for funding to assist states with paid family and medical leave, supports free community college, and strengthens Pell Grants. It also creates and expands supports for Native youth programs.
Second, there’s also some important funding for criminal justice reform in this proposal. Obama’s budget would make a $5 billion, 10-year investment in a new 21st Century Justice Initiative. This would focus on reducing violent crime, reforming harsh prison sentences, and building trust between law enforcement and the communities they’re supposed to protect. This budget would fund state-focused reforms of both the adult and juvenile justice systems and try to reduce obstacles for citizens re-entering society after incarceration.
Third, Obama also calls for a substantial investment — over $300 billion — to fix our crumbling infrastructure.
Fourth, did I mention that this budget would also reduce the deficit by almost $3 trillion over 10 years?
There’s the hope — lots of hope. Now, what about the change?
To understate it, the politically practical mechanisms for securing this funding are more elusive. The conservatives on Capitol Hill have long opposed spending aimed at helping working families and families living in poverty. The current climate is even more polarized than in recent years. Indeed, Congress won’t even be inviting the president’s budget director to discuss the budget resolution, as has been customary.
But there’s one big-haired wild card in the mix this time: Donald Trump and the conservative populist moment.
It seems that more and more conservative voters are so fed up with the GOP establishment that they’re turning in droves to the likes of Donald Trump. Though the Trump faction is in many ways the opposite of the surging Sanders movement for democratic socialism, Trump and his supporters are also anti-Wall Street, opposed to tax breaks for the super-rich, and opposed to further privileging of certain special interests, such as Big Pharma. Unlike many Tea Party voters, Trump’s GOP populist supporters want their Social Security and Medicare protected. They want the jobs that come with fixing our failing infrastructure. (They also want to keep out immigrants and refugees and propel us into violent, endless wars, but that’s a different commentary.)
Finally, criminal justice reform has emerged as a single, shining bipartisan desire. There may just be GOP support for this important piece of Obama’s domestic budget proposal.
Like it or not, Obama’s “hopey-changey” budget proposals stays within the budget caps agreed on by both sides of the aisle last year. And it reduces the deficit while addressing many of the issues that disaffected Trump supporters care about. If the GOP wants to stay relevant, its establishment members of Congress may have to pay more attention to this budget than they wish to.