This Time I Really Mean It

Obama lets Congress have one last pork supper.

Fat Tuesday was a week ago, but President Obama is letting Congress extend the holiday. He said in his address to Congress last week that hard times would require sacrifice from everyone and that he was going to insist on rigorous budget discipline. This week, however, he’s granting an exception for a $410 billion pork-filled spending bill, which he’s going to sign with little opposition.

Peter Orszag, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, was asked about the spending on ABC’s This Week Sunday. “This is last year’s business,” he said. “We want to just move on.” Obama can’t veto the bill, say aides, because it’s already gone through congressional committees and it would just be too hard to undo that work. Imagine if your diet worked this way: Before you start on your 28-day purge, you may consume the remaining food in your pantry.

In another universe—say, the one Obama inhabited rhetorically last week—the pork contained in the bill might have been eliminated and turned into “savings.” Obama’s budget writers have done backbends to create savings, and cutting these earmarks would have been a way to take the high ground and resort to fewer gimmicks. And Obama, who has repeatedly called on us all to do hard things, might have taken on this hard task as a way of leading by example. Or, having run on changing Washington, the president might have decided to make changes to a bill that represents a lot of what he ran against. Or, he might listen to allies like Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh who asked him to veto the bill.

Of course in that universe we’d also get Fridays off, books would be published on merit, and the stock market would rise if we asked nicely. The reason Obama isn’t going to veto the spending bill is that, despite his popularity, he is not a magician, as Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel described so colorfully in discussing the stimulus bill with The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza.  Undoing the bill’s many pet projects would create a bloodbath, angering both Republicans and Democrats over what is, relative to his other requests, a small amount of savings ($16 billion if you remove the earmarks from the bill). Obama’s efforts to prop up the deteriorating economy and transform energy and health care policy will require a lot of political capital; he’d be crazy to squander it this early. So despite what Obama aides say, this supine posture is not about the past but about the future.

It would be great if Obama or his aides would say that out loud. Then they would be treating us all like adults, as Obama promised to. But that would also create political headaches: It’s hard for a president who uses the language of moral absolutes to embrace relativity. Also, as a political matter, the public trusts the president to get it out of this fix, and according to polls, it doesn’t trust his critics—so he’s not likely to pay a penalty for not vetoing this spending bill.

In a just-released Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Obama’s approval rating is at an all-time high. People were asked whom they trust to lead the country out of the recession, and only 20 percent said Republicans (48 percent said Democrats). More than half of all adults say that Republicans in Congress have opposed Obama’s proposals more to gain political advantage, and they blame the GOP for the partisanship in Washington.

With numbers that low, one might imagine the White House helping book Republicans on the cable talk shows. At the moment, Republican criticism is something Obama wants (which explains why his spokesman is only too happy to talk about Rush Limbaugh’s latest reiteration that he hopes Obama’s economic plans fail).

What may return to haunt Obama about this passivity is that Congress may take the wrong lesson from it. The dynamics that keep Obama from matching his rhetoric on budget discipline won’t disappear with the omnibus spending bill. Congressional leaders now know the president is willing to take the public relations hit and allow spending he says he doesn’t agree with in order to save his political capital for the next big request.

After all, Obama will always have these larger priorities. And members of Congress will always be able to ask for their pet projects in return for supporting them. As if on cue, on Tuesday, Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer asserted the House’s earmark prerogatives. Save those party hats for next year.