President Barack Obama's first budget proposal, released Thursday, would be the largest in American history, with also the biggest deficit.
From one point of view, it's a bold step forward to the future, realigning America's goals and having a transformational effect. But from another perspective, it's a little like the person who is out of work saying he wants to buy a Cadillac to drive to his next job.
Regardless of which it turns out to be, the needs of an expiring economy are many and the new budget pledges to address them. The Democratic Congress is likely to pass much of the proposal, even with the Republicans gnawing at it already. The long-term impact of the big spending, and the ballooning national debt, will take a while to see. So will the effect of the heavy investments in improved health care and education.
The budget proposed is $3.55 trillion. The anticipated deficit is $1.75 trillion. Mr. Obama promises that at the same time spending increases, the deficit will be cut over the long haul. This may require a leap of faith. He says he will find savings and increased revenues in cutting corporate and agribusiness subsidies, higher taxes for corporations and the well-to-do, and savings from the end of the Iraq war.
Maybe. But in Washington, going after executive- and legislative-branch sacred cows can be a difficult business. Each is protected by lobbyists and campaign contributors. Their pet sponsors -- bureaucrats and legislators -- will fight to keep their cow out of the slaughterhouse.
One key part is the Defense Department budget and troop withdrawal from Iraq. Mr. Obama in his transparent budget, unlike the Bush administration's annual omission of intended war spending, plans to cut the Pentagon wish list and begin Iraq troop withdrawal. The two are clearly linked and he will have to be careful that he achieves both. Cutting money is the only sure way to reduce Pentagon activities.
Now the fun will begin in Congress. Democrats will favor the proposals, seeking only to preserve or reinsert their own pet projects in the final budget. Republicans will bleat that the Democrats, starting with Mr. Obama, are irresponsible spenders, especially evil for taking aim at the Republican base, the rich, by ending in 2010 some of the Bush tax cuts.
The boldness of vision, shift of emphasis to human infrastructure and partial reallocation of the nation's tax burden in Mr. Obama's budget are all correct. The new president has made an inspired opening bid. The devil of the budget will be -- as it always is with Congress -- in the details.