President Barack Obama wants the era of big government back.
Ronald Reagan in his 1981 inaugural ushered in an era of skepticism about Uncle Sam by declaring that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Bill Clinton affirmed the sentiment in his 1996 State of the Union address, proclaiming, “the era of big government is over.”
Now Obama, unleashed from elections, entering the final two years of his presidency and wrestling with a legacy that includes a struggling middle class, is using his proposed budget for 2016 as a political manifesto. It’s one he hopes will turn the country’s course back toward the embrace of government that ruled from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s through Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society of the 1960s.
The budget he proposed Monday, with big boosts in spending and debt, suggests a crusade for a strong central government as a provider for the disadvantaged and bulwark against corporate excess, financed by new taxes on the wealthy.
Forget any big emphasis on debt reduction or fresh thoughts on finding common ground with the new Republican-led Congress.
The tax code should be more progressive. Government regulations must protect ordinary people against corporate excesses. Health care is a right, not a privilege. Educational opportunities are crucial.
“What I offer in this budget is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class,” the president said Monday.
The trouble is, big government under Obama hasn’t worked as well as he might have hoped.
His 2009 economic stimulus helped the nation rebound from its worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s, but the recovery is still sluggish and consumer confidence has only recently begun to revive.
The 2010 health care law, mandating that nearly everyone get insurance coverage, has been marred by technical and bureaucratic glitches and occasional chaos.
Obama and congressional Republicans have been stalemated over fiscal policy for years.
The president chugs on, casting himself as this century’s heir to the Progressive tradition inspired by Theodore Roosevelt. When he sought to outline his vision of government in 2011, Obama did it in Osawatomie, Kan., a site chosen because Roosevelt had outlined his “New Nationalism” there 101 years earlier.
Obama used the word “fair” often, cited Roosevelt and described “a make-or-break moment for the middle class and all those who are fighting to get into the middle class.”
He got bolder in his 2013 inaugural address, a combative speech in which he positioned himself as this century’s champion of the economically ravaged masses. “We the people,” he said, “understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.”
That resolve has grown steelier. Even though Obama said he was in effect on the ballot in November, and saw leading Democratic Senate and House of Representatives contenders crushed, he hasn’t relented.
His November action to allow millions of immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally to remain in the country fit his goals of opportunity and fairness. His threat to veto the Keystone XL pipeline, as well as forging a pact with China on climate change, was aimed at protecting consumers from what he saw as corporate excess.
Republicans howled, saying he was ignoring the Constitution. Obama brushed them aside.
Now comes the budget. It has the feel of a Progressive Era treatise, revised for 2015.
“This is what he always wanted to do,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog group.
The tax component is most emblematic of Obama’s ultimate goal. Republicans protest that higher taxes on the wealthy stifle private initiative and provide an already-bloated government with more money to become more intrusive.
Democrats counter that a more progressive tax system is a seminal step toward assuring everyone of equal opportunity.
Under Obama’s proposal Monday, millionaires would pay a minimum 30 percent tax rate. Itemized deductions would diminish for wealthier people. Capital-gains rates would go up. Offshore corporate profits would be subject to a one-time 14 percent tax.
Spending subject to annual appropriations would jump 7 percent.
Experts say that two important ways of helping struggling lower- and moderate-income people are making child care more accessible and education more affordable. Obama proposes both.
The child care tax credit would increase threefold. “High quality” infant and toddler care would be more available. Washington would partner with states in his Preschool for All initiative for 4-year-olds. Community college tuition would be free for two years for “responsible students.”
Such proposals are likely to find scant support in a Congress where Republicans see a fresh mandate to shrink the size and reach of government. And independent analysts are questioning Obama’s claim that middle-class families will benefit. “Overall, the president’s plan has a modest effect on middle-class Americans,” said an analysis by the Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution.
All this suggests the budget’s chief value might be as a platform for Democrats to champion heading into 2016.
“Wealth redistribution is an easy question: The polls all show this is THE economic question, and even the Republicans are trying to use it,” said Stan Collender, a veteran Washington budget analyst.
It looks that way. While the numbers say the economy is roaring, people remain uneasy, and Democrats are getting feistier about shaking up fiscal policy. Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, is now top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, and is considering a presidential bid.
The budget, he said, “moves us in the right direction.”
At the moment, though, it’s likely only to create more months of inertia. Lamented House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., “This budget is simply more of the same.”