The Ego Budget

By Benjamin Reeves

Common wisdom says that the “skinny budget” presented by the president to Congress every year is essentially a political document. It doesn’t define what the budget will actually be since Congress — not the president — is responsible for drafting and passing the budget; rather, its purpose is to provide a guide to the president’s priorities for the country, and traditionally, the president’s party uses it as a baseline when drafting their budget. Given the skinny budget’s role as a primarily political document, it’s not surprising that presidents use its opening statement, in which they address Congress and the American people, as a rhetorical opportunity before getting down to dollars and cents.

President Obama’s first budget in 2010, titled “A New Era of Responsibility — Renewing America’s Promise,” began with a three-page “message” that functioned as an explanation of government’s obligations to the American people. Its first sentences made the stakes clear while situating the budget in history; it was the height of the financial crisis, the nation was embroiled in wars overseas (as always):

Throughout America’s history, there have been some years that appeared to roll into the next without much notice or fanfare. Budgets are proposed that offer some new programs or eliminate an initiative, but by and large continuity reigns.

Then there are the years that come along once in a generation, when we look at where the country has been and recognize that we need a break from a troubled past, that the problems we face demand that we begin charting a new path. This is one of those years.

In classic Obama fashion, it returns over and over again to the idea of responsibility and patriotism: “The time has come to usher in a new era — a new era of responsibility in which we act not only to save and create new jobs, but also a new foundation of growth upon which we can renew the promise of America.” It was the height of the financial crisis, and millions of Americans had lost their homes or their jobs. As such, Obama’s call for “a new era of responsibility” is both highly specific and pertinent to virtually everyone in the nation at that time. The use of the first person plural “we” emphasizes an idea that everyone is in the same boat, and it will sink or sail based on shared efforts. “We start 2009 in the midst of a crisis unlike any we have seen in our lifetimes,” Obama continues. “This crisis is neither the result of a normal turn of the business cycle or an accident of history. We arrived at this point as a result of an era of profound irresponsibility.”

Indeed, the invocation of the nation using “we” and the concept of shared sacrifice and responsibility is typically an animating trait of presidents’ budget messages. While George W. Bush opened his 2002 budget message in the first person (“With a great sense of purpose, I present to the Congress my budget”), he quickly pivoted to inclusionary language with the simple phrase “Our new approach is compassionate.” Of course, many would debate whether his actual policy proposals, such as tying schools’ financing to test scores or cutting taxes for the wealthy, were compassionate, but he struck an appropriate rhetorical note of collective action. Going back a little farther in time, Ronald Reagan — although he opened with the phrase “My administration” — also put a focus on collective action in his 1982 budget intro: “Meeting these challenges requires that we establish priorities, recognizing the limits to even our nation’s enormous resources. We cannot do all that we wish at the same time.”  To state the obvious, subtlety isn’t exactly a core aspect of presidential budgeteering, but Trump’s proposal is a radical rhetorical departure from historical norms of using inclusionary language and building a case for collective action.

President Trump’s first budget, released on March 16 and titled “America First — A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” brazenly rejects Obama’s inclusionary instincts in favor of full-throated self-aggrandizement. Its title nods to Charles Lindbergh’s 1940-41 proto-fascist political movement that advocated isolationism and appeasement of the Nazis. Further, whereas Obama never used the first person singular pronoun “I” in his first 1,953-word budget intro — he was new to the job after all and hadn’t exactly earned the right to claim personal credit for anything yet — Trump’s statement is larded with the pronoun. Despite his intro being less than a third of the length of Obama’s, he uses the words “I,” “me” and “my” a full nine times. The first sentence of Trumps budget says: “The American people elected me to fight for their priorities in Washington, D.C. and deliver on my promise to protect our nation.” The takeaway from the intro is that the thing that is important is that Trump was elected and Trump gave “instructions” — cursory though they may be — to create a budget emphasizing the military and security apparatus.

Trump concludes his message by calling for “deep cuts to foreign aid” and to “prioritize the security and well-being of Americans.” Finally, he says, “many other government agencies and departments will also experience cuts. These cuts are sensible and rational. Every agency and department will be driven to achieve greater efficiency and to eliminate wasteful spending in carrying out their honorable service to the American people.”

Trump’s vision is a bleak one, of belt-tightening and a fortress mentality. Obama finished his message by calling on the greatness of the American spirit:

Some may look at what faces our nation and believe that America’s greatest days are behind it. They are wrong. Our problems are rooted in past mistakes, not our capacity for future greatness. We should never forget that our workers are more innovative and industrious than any on earth. Our universities are still the envy of the world. We are still home to the most brilliant minds, the most creative entrepreneurs, and the most advanced technology and innovation that history has every known. And we are still the Nation that has overcome great fears and improbable odds. It will take time, but we can bring change to America. We can rebuild that lost trust and confidence. We can restore opportunity and prosperity. And we can bring about a new sense of responsibility among Americans from every walk of life and from every corner of the country.

In sentiment, Obama is saying that America can be great and always has been, despite struggles and hard times. The most important American trait, in his eyes, is responsibility. Incidentally, bipartisan budget action is a much greater possibility when the president presents the budget as being a collective undertaking, even if this is just a rhetorical sleight of hand. It’s not merely a poetic flourish, but given its primacy in the document, it also sets the tone for how he expects Congress to receive it. Donald Trump’s last words?

“I look forward to engaging the Congress and enacting this America First Budget.” In other words — he refers to himself and calls back to a philosophy which espoused isolationism and the appeasement of evil. Whereas prior presidents, of both liberal and conservative backgrounds, have sought to use the budget preamble as a way to at least pay lip service to ideals of bipartisanship and cooperation, and Obama seems to have actively sought to remove himself from his first budget presentation, Trump has defined the entire process by how it relates to him. Not only is Trump’s budget intro guileless in blatantly demonstrating that his interests lay less in the particulars of how the federal budget affects the American people than in how it demonstrates his ostensible power, it also claims a politically dangerous amount of responsibility for the eventual form of the budget. If the Congress refuses to pass a budget similar to that which Trump presented, a likely outcome given how draconian many of the proposed cuts are, it will blow back on only one person: Trump himself.

Indeed, Obama’s 2009 budget proposal included hundreds of millions of dollars in spending to shore up the financial system and deal with the effects of the housing crisis and surging unemployment — ultimately shared expenses of the nation in a crisis— while attempting to mitigate long-term debt. Trump’s budget simply attempts to gut the safety net — programs that benefit everyone — in favor of lowering taxes on a very few plutocrats, such as himself and his family.

 

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