Well, I don’t know quite where to start. Maybe it’d be hyperbole to say that it’s the most ambitious move for liberalism* in 40 years. But maybe not.
I’m certainly happy with his instincts. One particularly wonky detail was a decisive cut to farm subsidies, which he is moving to cut decisively. This will, of course, be cut from the bill; farm-state Democrats and Republicans alike will never allow farm subsidies to stop. But farm subsidies have been untouchable for precisely that reason, and even mentioning them has been seen as political death. Cutting American farm subsidies are possibly the single most significant move that the United States could do to address extreme poverty in Africa; they lead to dump-priced American goods undercutting the cost of local produce, devastating their economy. It’s a small but signficant gesture to interested parties.
On the big-ticket items, it really does have all the big priorities. (Relatively) small increases in military funding, rather than the usual enormous ones. Lots of money for health care reform. Green energy subsidies. A carbon cap-and-trade regime. A tax hike for the rich, not only for revenue purposes but explicitly to redress growing social inequality. Liberals will not get everything they’re looking for from Obama’s budget (especially in the first year), but he’s not in Washington to check every single box on the checklist.
Obama is engaged in an ambitious project to remake American politics. If one creates a constituency, one creates a potent force to manipulate politics. The fight over Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security showed it to be untouchable, because cuts concern every single voter. Liberals are naturally more suited to this; an ideological predisposition to dispensing cash means this process takes root more naturally. The Republican leadership should be terrified: a few years of budgets like this one pose the potential to seriously shift the landscape of political discourse. Cold hard cash in people’s pockets can do that the way that soaring rhetoric never can.
*”Progressivism” if you prefer your nomenclature wishy-washy.