It's Groundhog Day in Washington.
As President Barack Obama unveils his federal budget for 2014, he's calling for many of the same programs he's been pushing for years: More stimulus spending. A "Buffett Rule" to bring the effective tax rates on millionaires in line with those of the middle class. Other tax hikes on the wealthy to help pay down the national debt.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., derided Obama's budget as a microwaved version of last year's budget – which, like all of Obama's budget proposals, failed to pass Congress.
But Republican counterproposals are warmed-over, too. Republicans are sneering at Obama's stimulus measures, declaring that tax increases will never happen and clinging to their own hopeless plans to slash Medicare and other popular programs far more than polls show the public would tolerate.
The stage seems set for a familiar Washington standoff, with no budget getting passed and Congress funding the government with a series of ad-hoc resolutions. But this time, there's a better chance Obama will get more of the things he's after.
First, Obama enjoys newfound support for his handling of the economy. A Gallup poll reveals that 57 percent of Americans have confidence in Obama when it comes to the economy, the highest level since the early days of his presidency.
Part of that is surely due to factors beyond Obama's control, such as the Federal Reserve's easy-money policies and the natural progression of the recovery. But Obama also managed to resolve the fiscal cliff standoff in a way many people more or less approved of, by both raising taxes and cutting spending. That enhances his credibility on fiscal matters.
Republicans, meanwhile, still lack credibility on the budget. In the same Gallup poll, just 39 percent of people said they trust Republican leaders on the economy. These numbers ebb and flow, based on the latest histrionics in Washington, but in general Obama seems to be gaining trust, not losing it, as his second term progresses. That will add to his political leverage, as it did when he managed to include tax hikes on the wealthy in the fiscal cliff deal.
Second, for the first time, Obama has included cuts to Medicare and Social Security in his formal budget proposal. His proposed cuts are modest, compared with some Republican plans, and in the past Obama reportedly said he'd agree to similar cuts in private negotiations with House Speak John Boehner, R-Ohio, and others.
But Obama never proposed such cuts publicly while still facing reelection.
Calling for such cuts moves Obama away from the left and closer to the center, where the majority of voters are. Obama's budget actually reflects the relative mix of spending cuts and tax increases – at a ratio of 2-to-1 – voters say they favor as the right way to tackle the national debt. That will make Obama's budget seem more realistic, further enhancing his credibility.
Finally, Obama has at long last called for comprehensive tax reform. In theory, this would close or narrow dozens of loopholes without the need to raise tax rates, producing a win for mostly everybody through less complexity, lower compliance costs and a stronger sense of fairness.
Passing tax reform could be murderously difficult, because of the intense lobbying meant to procure an edge for various interest groups. But if there's consensus on anything in Washington, it's that the tax code is a costly, complicated mess that needs to be streamlined.
Obama's budget stakes out some populist turf by calling for higher taxes on the wealthy and simpler taxes for everybody, while taking some risks by putting his own party's sacred cows in the crosshairs. That doesn't mean it will pass, but it will get a fairer hearing than previous Obama budgets. If you avoid overheating, the microwave can produce worthy offerings every now and then.
Rick Newman's latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.