WASHINGTON – The perennially tardy President Barack Obama appeared half an hour early for Monday’s speech outlining his 2016 budget – a rare show of enthusiasm for the sacrificial ritual of sending his annual spending proposal to die on Capitol Hill.
But Obama had reason to be energetic, because this budget rollout was less about the 2016 blueprint than the current showdown with congressional Republicans, who are threatening to cut off funding for the Department of Homeland Security at month’s end if Obama doesn’t abandon his immigration policies.
The White House, emphasizing the point, staged the speech at a DHS campus in Northwest Washington, an old naval facility that occupies one of the highest perches in the city. From here, facing rows of men and women in the uniforms of the Coast Guard, Border Patrol, FEMA and other DHS agencies, Obama unquestionably occupied the high ground as well in his looming fight with Congress.
“The work you do hangs in the balance,” Obama said to those assembled, warning Republicans not to “jeopardize our national security over this disagreement” and mocking a claim by a Republican lawmaker that cutting off the department’s funding is “not the end of the world.”
“It is the end of a paycheck for tens of thousands of front-line workers who’ll continue to have to work without getting paid,” he said. “Over 40,000 Border Patrol and customs agents, over 50,000 airport screeners, over 13,000 immigration officers, over 40,000 men and women in the Coast Guard.”
This is why Republicans will probably come to regret the showdown they forced with Obama by allowing DHS funding to expire at the end of this month while the rest of the government operates through September. Their argument – that they are happy to fund homeland security as long as it doesn’t include funds to implement Obama’s executive actions on immigration – is unlikely to prevail in public opinion against Obama’s claims that Republicans “jeopardize our national security.” This has echoes of 2002, when President George W. Bush clobbered Democrats by alleging that they were “not interested in the security of the American people,” because of a dispute over union provisions in the creation of DHS.
Their uphill fight over DHS funding also distracts from Republicans’ budget arguments, where they are in a stronger position. Obama’s 2016 proposal is a combination of the timid (he again does little to address the long-term problem with entitlements) and the symbolic (his proposed tax increases have little chance in the Republican Congress).
In his speech Monday, Obama continued to make dubious claims to justify the new spending he proposes.
“Since I took office, we have cut our deficits by about two-thirds,” he said – but this is true only if you don’t count the enormous deficit amassed in fiscal 2009 as part of Obama’s presidency.
“The budget I’ve sent to Congress today is fully paid for,” he alleged – even though his budget has a $474 billion projected deficit in 2016 and would add about $5.7 trillion to the debt over a decade.
“I will not accept a budget that severs the vital link between our national security and our economic security,” he said – but a congressional budget resolution does not require a president’s signature.
Those inconsistencies might get more of an airing if Obama weren’t about to go eyeball-to-eyeball with congressional Republicans over homeland security. When it comes to fighting terrorists, the president brings better imagery than Congress can. The arsenal was on display Monday at DHS: the sharpshooters on roofs, helicopters overhead, multiple layers of vehicle barriers, explosive-sniffing dogs, magnetometers, X-ray machines and physical inspections, the sound system playing the Air Force Band’s rendition of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” – and rows of men and women in uniform, many taking photos of the commander in chief.
The 200 civil servants in an old gymnasium served as props for Obama as he made his dispute with Congress about them.
“You safeguard our ports, you patrol our borders, you inspect our chemical plants, screen travelers for Ebola, shield our computer networks, help hunt down criminals from around the world,” Obama told his props. And he all but dared Republicans to stop paying them. “Every day, we count on people like you to keep America secure. … The least we can do is have your backs.”
After his early arrival, Obama took just 14 minutes to deliver his message. Defending his budget would have been hard work – but winning this homeland-security fight with Congress is child’s play.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.