I think “baffling” is the appropriate term for the response to the apparent line item in the President’s budget cutting LIHEAP, energy assistance for the poor, by $3 billion (sources now say $2.5 billion). Mainstream journalist Matthew Cooper asks, “Who Wants Grandma to Freeze?” John Kerry, who’s trying to get a job in the next Administration as Secretary of State, has denounced the cut and urged the President to reconsider. I don’t know that there’s one Democratic policy type willing to defend this.

Ultimately, this comes down to two things: 1) bad math and 2) “looking tough.” On the latter, that just seems like a catastrophic error. Nobody who sees you trying to freeze poor people in winter outside of the most hardcore Republicans who won’t ever vote for you anyway will give you credit for doing that to be “tough.” They’ll think of you as cruel. As former ACORN employee David Swanson notes, community action groups stopped George Bush from pulling this off back in 2003 by literally taking over the headquarters of the Illinois Republican Party the day before Bush spoke in Chicago. And they succeeded because, no matter the messenger, cutting heating assistance for poor people is seen as appalling policy to which no politician wants to connect themselves.

The reason I say “bad math,” on the second point, is this. The President announced a discretionary spending freeze. He also announced “investments” in infrastructure, education and innovation, all of which fall in that discretionary budget. So something has to be cut in order to balance that out. And eliminating tax expenditures have been taken off the table by the Republicans. Now, maybe some people think there are lots of programs that are duplicative or wasteful and can easily be slashed to accommodate for these investments, but that’s not really true. Programs like LIHEAP and other programs that provide aid to the most vulnerable in society would have to be cut to make the numbers balance.

This is why the spending freeze was such a dumb idea. First of all, it walled off “discretionary non-security spending” as the area that had to be frozen, and as I said before the socioeconomic status of those helped by programs in that area is obviously lower than those helped by the security budget or the tax structure. Then it made it so that any far-reaching investment in the people had to be balanced out by cuts elsewhere, basically blunting their impact. I hear Ag subsidies will drop in the Obama budget too, so not all of this has been as cruel as the LIHEAP cuts. But there aren’t as many areas of low-hanging fruit as everyone thinks.

Matt Cooper presumes that this could be a triangulation situation, or a way to dramatize the cuts:

If Obama can end LIHEAP as we know it, then it’s going to be much harder to characterize him as the crazed spender of tea party fulminations. Two very different programs and circumstances, yes, but each changes the lens through which we see the president.

Of course, there is a possibility that this could become Obama’s “firemen first” problem.

The phrase comes from Washington editor and author Charles Peters, who has noted that when cities face budget cuts, those resisting the cuts almost always point immediately to the threat of firemen losing their jobs. The idea is to create so much fear that the cuts never go through.

I think the Republicans, with their list of cuts, are doing enough of the fearmongering on their own. Obama can simply point to those, and position himself on the side of the people. There’s no real need for him to be the one pulling the plug on heating assistance. And given all the justifications appended to this – the LIHEAP budget was really high before; heating prices have gone down from 2008 – I don’t see how this is for show. And if it is, the political savvy at the White House is almost non-existent.

More likely, they backed themselves into a budget corner, and poor people now have to pay the price for him to get out of it.