It lasted a week. A week of President Obama starting to sound like the brave leader millions of Americans elected. And then we got to the policy part. Clearly, his opening bid for next year's budget is designed to prove he's more of a deficit hawk than Republicans. The administration's upcoming budget, which the president will plug in his first State of the Union address, is to include a three-year freeze in "non-security" domestic spending. The idea is to keep 2013 spending on par with that of 2011-putting the Barack Obama of 2010 pretty much in step with the John McCain of 2008.
A spending freeze was, infamously, candidate McCain's out-of-touch idea for fixing the economy. It was an idea candidate Obama hammered, compellingly, in all three debates. Instituting a spending freeze, Obama repeatedly parried, is like "using a hatchet, where you need a scalpel." Check out this video compilation of him doing so (hat tip to Think Progress' Wonk Room):
That Obama, circa 2008, was also the leader who bravely defended the positive role government has played in citizens' lives, the one who stressed government's responsibility to ensure equal opportunity. "It's important for the president to set a tone," he declared in the second debate, "that says all of us are going to contribute, all of us are going to make sacrifices. … I disagree with Sen. McCain about an across the board spending freeze. That's an example of an unfair burden sharing."
The White House now defends the president's seeming flip-flop by splitting a hair: His spending freeze is more like a spending cap; some programs can still grow while others will get cut. Whatever. The truth is more like this: Politicians like to propose freezes, if not actually honor them, because they sound good to independent voters who are worried about fiscal responsibility, just not enough to pay more taxes.
Lay aside the president's abdication of his powerful role as explainer in chief for progressive governance. As a matter of policy, Paul Krugman's take sums up Obama's spending freeze well: "It's appalling on every level. It creates an environment where the massive investments we desperately need-in health care reform, in energy and most urgently in old-fashioned job creation-are both politically and fiscally all but impossible.
The spending-freeze announcement is no doubt timed to balance the increasing spend-and-regulate tone Obama has taken in the wake of the Democrats' debacle in Massachusetts. It comes alongside a flurry of talk about helping the middle class. Obama has proposed a package of initial reforms like expanded tax credits for child care and retirement accounts and limiting monthly payments on federal student loans.
Obama's State of the Union address is also expected to ratchet up his populist rhetoric, in a belated acknowledgment of the fact that Americans are feeling played by big government and big corporations alike. And the elevation of former Fed Chair Paul Volcker-who's bullish on reining in the big banks-into the president's inner circle of economic advisers certainly holds promise.
But as economist and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich explains, "[Obama's] three-year freeze on a large portion of discretionary spending will make it impossible for him to do much of anything for the middle class that's important."
As candidate Obama pointed out, the real deficit demon isn't discretionary domestic spending. It's out-of-control defense contracting and tax giveaways to the rich. If the president is serious about the deficit, he should make the case for actually fixing it. Indeed, a number of progressive economists have wisely begun sketching out what meaningful deficit reduction looks like. But what we need right now is jobs, millions and millions of jobs. And that means smart deficit spending, not counterproductive and pandering spending freezes.
Kai Wright is The Root's senior writer. Follow him on Twitter.