"Nobody is more mindful than me that entitlements are going to be a key part of this issue," Obama said during his first press conference of the year, just a day after submitting his $3.7 trillion proposal to Congress. "The notion that [entitlement reform] has been shelved is incorrect. [The budget] still provides a framework for a conversation." Yet, Obama was on the defensive as congressional Republicans grilled top administration officials for not tackling ballooning Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid costs or embracing other reforms proposed by the president's own bipartisan deficit commission.
Obama chided critics for demanding immediate solutions to long-term problems and said his budget proposal was intended as a starting point for negotiations with Republicans, who have vowed to slash spending far beyond what Obama proposed.
"We're going to be in discussions over the next several months," the president said. "I mean, this is going to be a negotiation process."
By not planting his flag on entitlement reform, the president could insulate himself from the political backlash that often accompanies even modest proposals to change Medicare or Social Security while building a coalition to deliver historic changes, analysts said.
"From a technical point of view, he's doing the right thing," Alice Rivlin, former President Clinton's budget director, told The Washington Examiner. "It would not have been smart [to propose extensive entitlement reform]. He would have been put in a box and Republicans would have been against anything he sent over."
The increasingly conservative political environment did not prevent the president from recommending tax increases on the wealthiest Americans as well as oil and gas companies -- both likely dead on arrival in the Republican-led House.
And Obama's proposal to slash energy assistance programs and community development grants, programs popular with fellow Democrats, did little to sway politically emboldened Republicans, who point to a federal budget deficit projected to hit a record $1.6 trillion this year -- and grow by trillions of dollars more in coming years under the president's budget.
Some contend that Obama is wasting political cover provided by his deficit commission to pave the way for entitlement cutbacks such as raising the Social Security retirement age.
"This strikes me as a missed opportunity," said David Primo, an associate political science professor at the University of Rochester in New York. "President Obama has a 'Nixon goes to China' opportunity here. If he moves first with some serious reforms to Social Security and Medicare, he'll have significant credibility and can help set the agenda for reform."
But Obama said the backlash to his budget said more about the nature of outsized Washington expectations than his commitment to stanch the flow of runaway federal spending.
"Part of the challenge here is that this town -- let's face it, you guys are pretty impatient," the president said. "If something doesn't happen today, then the assumption is it's just not going to happen."