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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

First reactions aren’t always the best ones, but my first reaction to tonight’s news is that it’s a mistake on par with John McCain’s “suspending my campaign” gaffe. Politico:

President Obama plans to announce a three-year freeze on discretionary, “non-security” spending in the lead-up Wednesday’s State of the Union address, Hill Democratic sources familiar with the plan tell POLITICO.

The move, intended to blunt the populist backlash against Obama’s $787 billion stimulus and an era of trillion-dollar deficits — and to quell Democratic anxiety over last Tuesday’s Massachusetts Senate election — is projected to save $250 billion, the Democrats said.

The freeze would not apply to defense spending or spending on intelligence, homeland security or veterans.

I’ll let the economists talk about the wisdom of curtailing government spending in the middle of a massive consumption deficit, but what concerns me more is the politics. Specifically, the sort of cognitive dissonance that is going to be created in the mind of the average voter when the White House is promising to freeze spending on the one hand (or, more accurately, this will be the media caricature of their gambit), and on the other, trying to defend its stimulus and its health care reform package, trying to excuse the bailout package as a necessary evil, and perhaps trying to champion new programs. Sure, the story is probably being somewhat overreported, and the spending “freeze” will only apply to certain types of spending. And it’s applied relative to the already-elevated levels of spending from the FY2010 budget, and not some earlier baseline. There’s more bark here than bite, in other words: “freeze on discretionary spending” means something different on K Street than it does on Main Street. But that’s precisely what will make the White House (or at least the Democrats collectively) look flip-floppy. Every time the Democrats propose a jobs bill, or a big investment in alternative energy, you’re going to have Krauthammer and Kristol chomping at the bit to go on Fox News and proclaim Obama to be a hypocrite. Pity Robert Gibbs trying to parse his way out of that. This is not how one wins news cycles — or elections.

Edit / postscript: I’m fairly certain that the “spending freeze” will poll well in the near-term, and may even take Obama’s approval numbers up a point or so with it. But Obama’s not the one on the ballot in 2010; in the medium run, it’s most likely effect is to confuse voters, and in the long run, it’ll probably either be forgotten about or become Another Broken Promise™. The narrative about the “perpetual campaign” is generally kind of facile, but this whole thing has a weirdly campaign-trail quality to it.

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