Welcome to the war over E2I2. The great budget battle of Bill Clinton's presidency was waged around a slightly different set of initials, also inspired by the Star Wars character R2D2. Clinton's lieutenants jauntily encapsulated his fight against Republican cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment as a defense of M2E2.
For President Barack Obama, the battle lines will be drawn on investments in—or, as Republicans will prefer, spending on—education, energy, infrastructure, and innovation, thus E2I2.
After Obama delivers his budget proposal to Congress today, it will be hard to pretend anymore that the president and House Republicans even live in the same political galaxy, let alone have a chance of reaching lots of bipartisan agreements.
House GOP members are fixated not on specific programs or the purposes of government but on how big an arbitrary number measuring their budget cuts should be. The leadership offered an absurdly long list of cuts in the very narrow part of the domestic budget.
A telling example: The party that purports to love community and church-based efforts to help the poor and downtrodden even zeroed out AmeriCorps, the national service program that has long enjoyed support across party lines. AmeriCorps, remember, gives out small grants that leverage an enormous amount of voluntary work for the groups George W. Bush used to praise as "the armies of compassion."
But even those unrealistic cuts were not unrealistic enough for the highly caffeinated Tea Party, and so now GOP leaders are scrambling to generate bigger numbers. Republican leaders and the Tea Party can't even agree on how to count the various cuts.
The bottom line is that House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), who had already come up with $74 billion in cuts, had to produce another $26 billion to reach the magic number of $100 billion that Republicans promised to take out of the budget in the 2010 campaign. Even that may not be enough. Why? Because his numbers included $16 billion in military savings that Tea Party members don't recognize as part of the original promise, which was to come entirely out of nonsecurity spending.
I almost feel sorry for Rogers, though Republicans who rode the Tea Party tiger to power should not be surprised if they get devoured in the process.
Obama's budget, by contrast, is a mix of cuts and increases, with the accent on policies oriented toward the future—thus that stress on new education and energy initiatives, the need to fix both our transportation and technology infrastructures, and the ways in which government can foster research, development and innovation. But the president also slices programs popular with his own side, notably low-income energy assistance and community development block grants that help cities. There is reason to worry that Obama's cuts will do damage without satisfying Republicans—another case of the administration's proclivity for pre-emptive concession-making that encourages the president's opponents while dispiriting his friends.
The White House, however, believes that by showing a willingness to make reductions, his budget will shift the focus toward the specific programs Republicans would wipe out or cripple. A senior administration official hopes the argument will go like this: "They want to cut and spend. We want to cut and spend. Let's compare their cuts and our cuts, their spending and our spending."
The entire fight is confusing because Republicans are still talking about cuts in last year's budget while Obama is largely concentrating on the coming year's plan. And fiscally cautious Democrats in the Senate (especially the ones up for re-election in 2012) are an x-factor in everyone's calculations.
It helps Obama that House Republicans are moving so far over to the wild side that they may ruin their chances of complicating the president's strategy by splitting Senate Democrats. On the other hand, some Senate Democrats are so filled with electoral anxieties that they may simply race to catch up as the Tea Party keeps moving the budget goal posts.
Since the election, Obama has largely defined the domestic political debate while House Speaker John Boehner has presided over chaos in his own chamber.
But with an actual budget on the table, the president will face a different level of challenge. Like Clinton, he will invoke the "Star Wars" story line and hope Republicans play their assigned Darth Vader role. But he'll need to keep his troops behind him to prevail in the coming epic.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).