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Tony Fratto: Is Obama Mr. Spend or Mr. Freeze?

President Barack Obama
Photo by: Pete Souza
President Barack Obama

President Obama came to Washington with the contradictory message that the federal government had both spent like drunken sailors and starved federal programs of necessary funding.

Something was going to have to give.

Or not.

According to the White House, President Obama will propose in his State of the Union address Wednesday night a 3-year spending freeze on non-defense, non-national security, non-stimulus, non-international, non-bailout, non-entitlement programs.

The President has also signaled his support — through law or executive order — for an independent commission to make tough tax and spending cut recommendations that Congress would consider with an up-or-down vote.

The flurry of deficit-cutting proposals, combined with his lurch toward anti-bank populism, are accurately seen as a response to independent voters who are abandoning Democrats candidates in droves.

Independents and most Republicans — many of whom were willing to give this presidency the benefit of the doubt, have already made their judgment on President Obama and Democratic one-party rule. They base their perception on real, substantial spending increases in the soon-to-be frozen portions of the budget, massive deficits, and proposals for further enormous spending increases in health care. They determine that President Obama is Mr. Spend.

Will these naturally skeptical voters buy that notion that Mr. Spend has now become Mr. Freeze?

Probably not.

First impressions are hard to break.

I know it's heresy to mention, but President Ronald Reagan will forever be known as a tax-cutter because of the historic cuts in marginal tax rates early in his administration. He will always be Mr. Tax Cut, regardless of rather substantial tax increases that became law later in his term. President Obama began his administration not only proposing an $800 billion stimulus plan, but then turned the design of it over to earmarking, wasteful congressional Democrats. He then followed that with double-digit increases in the his discretionary budget, and also proposed new spending on health care measured in trillions of dollars.

The modest spending freeze itself is easy to support, but locking in spending far above prior baseline spending projections will do little to convince voters the President is serious about real deficit reduction -- especially as the freeze is coupled additional new spending proposals.

Voters angry about spending know budget-cutting isn't in President Obama's heart, but instead a transparent reaction to voter outrage. The President can't talk about fiscal responsibility on Wednesday and then spend the other six days of the week highlighting spending programs.

Voters get it — beneath Wednesday's Mr. Freeze, President Obama will always be Mr. Spend.

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Tony Fratto is a CNBC on-air contributor and most recently served as Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Press Secretary for the Bush Administration.

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