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Obama Scoffed at McCain's Spending Freeze Proposal During Campaign

by Sam Stein

It didn't take long for the critics to come out in force -- and on YouTube -- against the Obama administration's just-leaked plan to propose a three-year freeze in discretionary, "non-security" spending as part of the upcoming budget.

Some Democrats scoffed at the idea, calling it the wrong approach during a time of deep economic recession. Republicans depicted it as a political gambit destined to be shot down by a non-compliant Congress.

One particularly tough attack, however, was delivered in Obama's own words -- in the form of a video compilation showing the president scoffing at just such a proposal in three successive presidential campaign debates. The video was posted quickly on YouTube.

"The problem with a spending freeze is you're using a hatchet where you need a scalpel. There are some programs that are very important that are underfunded," Obama says in his first debate against Republican candidate John McCain, who was pushing a spending freeze.

"That is an example of an unfair burden sharing," Obama says of McCain's proposal in the second debate. "That's using a hatchet to cut the federal budget. I want to use a scalpel so that people who need help are getting help and those of us like myself and Senator McCain who don't need help aren't getting it. That is how we make sure that everybody is willing to make a few sacrifices."

"It sounds good," Obama says of the proposal during the third debate. "It is proposed periodically. It doesn't happen. And in fact an across-the-board spending freeze is a hatchet and we do need a scalpel because there are some programs that don't work at all. There are some programs that are underfunded and I want to make sure that we are focused on those programs that work."

The administration's argument that it is not backtracking on a campaign pledge seems likely to rest on the use of the term "across-the-board." Obama's proposed cap for discretionary, non-defense spending would allow for some agencies and programs to get additional funding, on the condition that it comes from another agency.

"This is not a blunt, across-the-board freeze," said a senior administration official. "Some agencies will go up, others will go down; but in aggregate for those non-security agencies the total will remain constant."

As for the political dynamics, they clearly have changed since the campaign. Still stinging from the Democratic Party's loss of Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat, the White House is apparently choosing to respond to a rise in anti-government sentiment by making a new show of commitment to fiscal discipline.

The president, a senior adviser said, made the decision to propose the spending freeze after consultation with many advisers, in which he came to the conclusion that the government "can't spend more money than it has; that it has to make some decisions about what is vital."

"Do I think this is going to win us lots of kudos among some on Capitol Hill?" the official added. "No."
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