Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- If there were any doubts about the political skills of the new White House team under Chief of Staff William Daley, they have now been satisfied.

Recently, the Congressional Budget Office reported that President Obama's budget had underestimated the deficit over the next 10 years by $2.3 trillion. Deficits will exceed 4 percent of GDP each year, with the federal debt eventually rising to 87 percent of the total economy. Obama's budget plans are a gaudy spectacle of irresponsibility.

In spite of this, Obama now has Republicans cornered in budget negotiations. By accepting $33 billion in cuts for the remainder of 2011, Obama has taken the middle ground and exploited a major division within the Republican coalition. The administration has transformed a weak record into a strong political position.

What made this possible was Obama's willingness to betray progressives in Congress even before the budget conflict began. In February, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had criticized spending reductions in the range of $30 billion as "draconian" and "unworkable." Now that figure is a floor. The left has already lost the budget battle -- though the right has not yet won it. Obama clearly takes liberals for granted, shoring up his own fiscal reputation at their expense. Given their quiescence, it seems a good strategy.

This maneuver has also placed House Speaker John Boehner in exactly the position he wanted to avoid. Obama's offer is more than reasonable. A $30 billion reduction, after all, was the initial Republican negotiating position back in early February. Given that Republicans control only the House, this level of cuts would normally be viewed as a remarkable success. But a portion of the Republican conference longs for a confrontation that results in a government shutdown, preferring a fight over a victory. And the only worse outcome for Boehner than a politically risky shutdown is a deeply split conference, pitting the Republican establishment against tea party purists -- a result that would undermine all future Republican progress.

So Obama has managed to lighten his liberal baggage, turn Republicans against each other, and ensure they would be (justifiably) blamed for a shutdown. Not a bad month's work.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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