Analysis: Obama in Budget Battle

With Obama's speech on the budget, the deficit issue has become the battleground for the 2012 campaign.

Amiel Ungar, | updated: 22:39

Paul Ryan
Paul Ryan


President Obama's speech on the budget was  a calculated risk. It matched the magic figure of the Republican budget of Paul Ryan in terms of its breadth of projected savings-- 4 trillion dollars, but it staked out a different path to reach those savings in line with the Democratic Party agenda.

It was therefore intended to reassure and in effect tell voters: you don't have to abandon me for a nameless Republican candidate but can get the same effect in a more pleasurable way by taxing the rich and most of you can keep your social benefits.

The danger for Obama is that this issue is not playing to his strength, which consists of exhorting lofty goals without getting bogged down in specifics. His attack on the Republican Party also means he can forget about playing the post-partisan president, a role he played with gusto in the 2008 campaign.

Ryanm  the target of Obama's speech, was quick to attack Obama for partisanship:"We’re looking for bipartisan solutions, not partisan rhetoric," Ryan said. "Exploiting people’s emotions of fear, envy and anxiety is not hope, it’s not change -- it’s partisanship. We don’t need partisans". In that one sentence, Ryan took on the 'we want change' post-partisan president and claimed the high ground for his party on these same two orientations.

Barring an epic international crisis, the budget has become the issue for the 2012 election. The question that the voters will now be asked to adjudicate is who can best be trusted to realize the goals of balancing the budget. For budget wonks, the question will be whose figures add up. We can now expect both parties to parade accountants, economists and assorted number crunchers to prove to the electorate whose budget is more trustworthy.

We saw something like this in the 2010 British parliamentary elections, where one day a group of professors praised or criticized one party's proposals and were rebutted the next day by a different group of professors.

With the elevation of the budget to the number one issue, the Republican race is going to be impacted as well. The chances of Republican candidates such as John Bolton or Rudy Guliani, who sought to campaign on their foreign policy expertise are in an awkward position. The best they can hope for is to reprise the Joe Biden route and act as the foreign policy second fiddle to the Republican budgetary expert.

The odds are tilted in favor of a Republican with executive experience and demonstrated competence in taming the budget. He will then be counterposed to Obama, the community organizer, who is out of his depth when it comes to fiscal matters.  This has helped current and former governors like Tom Pawlenty, Mitt Romney and perhaps current governors as well should they declare candidacy.