Ever the optimist, President Barack Obama presented a fiscal 2014 budget Wednesday that he described as critical to a "grand bargain" addressing the bulk of the nation's financial issues. His political opponents in Washington provided the same knee-jerk response they do every year, setting the stage for another of those infuriating congressional debates where ideology dominates reality.
The president's $3.8 trillion budget constitutes a 2.5 percent increase over the current year, with investment in education, manufacturing, clean energy and infrastructure. Austerity economic measures have been disastrous all over Europe, as government spending is needed to prime the pump and trigger spending in the private sector, but Republican leadership insists on following failed examples.
The budget would double the federal tax on cigarettes to $1.95 a pack to finance a new pre-school program for 4-year-olds, and while the cause is worthy there have to be limits to how much even the most addicted of smokers will pay to finance their habit. The average price of a pack of cigarettes is about $8.50 in Massachusetts, according to the state Department of Revenue, and Governor Patrick's budget proposal also calls for an increase in the cigarette tax. Smokers are getting a powerful incentive to quit.
To help trim the deficit, the president proposes changes in the way government calculates annual cost-of-living adjustments to reduce money spent on Social Security and other benefit programs. In exchange for these changes, which have angered Democrats, the president is asking Republicans to agree to raise $580 billion by closing deductions for the top 2 percent of incomes. This constitutes compromise, which is not defined as Republicans getting what they want while surrendering nothing. If the GOP doesn't agree to the new revenue generated from the wealthiest taxpayers, Democrats can't be expected to support benefit reductions.
The president has presented a serious plan that merits a serious response beyond the usual political boilerplate. The president, who dined with a dozen Republican senators last night, is hopeful that compromise can be reached, but it is difficult to share that optimism.