The Obama administration budget to be released Tuesday will set the stage for an election-year debate over government's role in creating economic opportunity, with President Barack Obama calling for more federal spending to help the poor and Republicans charging that such programs waste money and foster dependency.
In his latest request to Congress, Obama plans to seek $56 billion in fresh spending to expand educational offerings for preschoolers and job training for laid-off workers, among other priorities — the very types of programs that Republicans say have been proved ineffective.
Meanwhile, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Wis., is at work on a GOP budget plan that aims to overhaul the nation's welfare system, in part by cutting spending on programs that Ryan argues have locked people into poverty.
The dueling blueprints are unlikely to produce much immediate legislative action, but they provide road maps for Democrats and Republicans heading into this fall's midterm elections. And while the policy prescriptions are vastly different, both sides seek to tap into powerful anxieties about how hard it is for the average person to get ahead in today's economy.
“The two sides have converged in terms of the problems they're diagnosing,” said Alan Viard, a resident scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “But the solutions are very far apart. It's not clear that either party is going to go too far away from the policies they've traditionally emphasized.”
The bipartisan focus on economic opportunity reflects the nation's changed economic and political circumstances: The Great Recession is long over. The annual budget deficit is shrinking. And both parties have concluded that they would benefit from taking a break after three years of near-constant confrontation over the budget.
During this lull, Obama and Ryan are working to change the conversation, laying out competing priorities that are likely to occupy lawmakers in earnest once the midterm elections are decided and Obama enters the final two years of his presidency.
“I view both the Obama budget and the Ryan budget as laying out proposals and guideposts for what's going to be a year-long discussion and debate,” said Bob Greenstein, president of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Some of it will make it into the campaigns. And the bigger decisions are going to come in 2015.”
With his budget request, Obama is returning to the populist, bread-and-butter themes that helped him win reelection and have played to Democrats' advantage for years. He will propose $28 billion in new spending on education, manufacturing and job training, as well as $28 billion for defense programs. He will endorse the idea of overhauling the corporate tax code to boost U.S. competitiveness and generate additional revenue to rebuild roads and bridges and create jobs.
In a nutshell, Obama will make the case that government has the potential to help millions of Americans prosper.
Ryan, meanwhile, is trying to shift his party away from the relentless focus on spending and deficits that has dominated GOP thinking in recent years. In its place, he is working to identify conservative policies that offer a helping hand to poor and working-class families.
Ryan says he sees a role for government, but he also wants to get parts of it out of the way so Americans can advance on their own. On Monday, for example, he released a blistering 204-page critique of the nation's vast array of social programs. The document serves as a precursor to a GOP budget that would fundamentally reweave the social safety net and — if past is prologue — shrink federal spending on it dramatically.
GOP leaders are applauding Ryan's work, after expressing concern that the White House's emphasis on economic mobility and inequality could be a threat to Republicans running in competitive low-income areas.