Obama to propose an earmark ban, budget freeze tonight

State of the Union speeches are usually seen as opportunities to show leadership on the part of presidents.  According to ABC’s exclusive look at Barack Obama’s SOTU speech, the President will instead more or less agree with Republicans during the midterm election cycle on their platform of governmental responsibility on spending.  Call it … Tea Party Lite:

Pursuing a path of deficit reduction and government reform, President Obama will tonight in his State of the Union address call for a ban on earmarks and he will propose an overall budget freeze, ABC News has learned.

The proposals come as the president prepares to tackle the deficit and debt and as he faces a House of Representatives in Republican hands, many of whose members include those affiliated with the Tea Party who may be willing to embrace both moves.

Yeah, well, that’s a day late and a dollar short — or long, depending on one’s perspective.  As ABC also points out, this all depends on one’s definition of budget cuts:

The president will propose some new spending in certain areas that address the speech’s theme of “How We Win the Future”: innovation, education and infrastructure. But those increases will be proposed as part of an overall budget freeze, which given the annual rate of growth is often seen in Washington, DC, budgeting as a cut.

It’s a cut in Beltwayese, in other words, because normally we’d expand spending instead of reducing it.   At least that isn’t as bad as Washington usually gets about cuts, which politicians usually define as a decrease in the rate of spending increases.  And don’t expect that definition to become defunct in the next two years, especially on the Democratic side of the aisle on Capitol Hill.

However, there are a couple of big reasons to avoid taking this seriously.  On the first promise, an earmark ban, Obama has made that promise repeatedly since starting his presidential campaign in 2007.  He has yet to veto a single spending bill based on earmarks.  The last budget contained several thousand earmarks, and yet Obama meekly signed every appropriation bill laid on his desk.  What’s he going to say tonight — “Guys, I’m superserial about it now”?

The Republicans already stole Obama’s thunder on this topic in December anyway.  They torpedoed the omnibus spending plan proposed by Democrats in the lame-duck session explicitly on the basis of its thousands of earmarks.  Obama didn’t exactly get in front of that effort; he refused to say that he’d veto the bill if it reached his desk.  Now, suddenly, he wants to get in front of the porkbusting effort again?  Fine, but it’s not leadership — that is bowing to reality.

On budget freezes, Obama shows even less leadership.  Republicans, fueled by a widespread revulsion against the growth of spending under Democrats over the last four years, have promised actual cuts in spending.  A freeze is a fallback position by a President afraid of losing his buying power with the public.

This is weak tea, not leadership, and the Tea Party knows the difference.

Update: Jake Tapper updates on Twitter that the freeze will be on non-security discretionary spending for the next five years, not across the whole budget.  Bear in mind that this covers about $450 billion in a $3.8 trillion proposed budget for FY2011; in other words, nothing more than a small start.