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The Incredible Disappearing 2013 Obama Budget

By last Tuesday — that is, by the day after it was released — you had trouble finding the Obama administration’s fiscal 2013 budget.

I don’t mean that hackers made it impossible to download the budget from the Office of Management and Budget’s website or that the Government Printing Office bookstore near you was sold out of the four volumes.

But even in a city like Washington, D.C. — where “long term” generally means after lunch tomorrow — the speed with which the Obama budget went from lead story to old news was impressive. It was also a great indication of what this year’s budget debate will be like.

No doubt part of the disappearing act was planned. Although the word from deep within the administration was that the release of the budget was delayed a week from the Feb. 6 Congressional Budget Act deadline because of a last-minute change affecting military spending, it now seems possible that the White House was also looking at the calendar when it decided to wait until Feb. 13.

The day after the budget was released was also the start of the official visit by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, and his arrival, meetings, speeches and photo ops dominated the financial and business outlets. After Xi’s visit began, the Obama plan immediately became less important and received much less coverage than is typical of a president’s budget the day after its released.

This virtually immediate change in the media’s attention from budget to Chinese vice president was easy to anticipate. In fact, not planning for it would have been a huge failure on the part of the White House communications team.

The communications failure instead happened to House Republicans. At almost the same time that Congressional Republicans were starting to hold media events on Feb. 13 to criticize Obama’s budget, the House GOP leadership formally announced it would not insist that the extension of the payroll tax cut be paid for with offsetting spending cuts.

That announcement immediately pushed the GOP criticisms of the Obama budget below the fold or off the front page, and made sure it wasn’t always the lead story on the evening news and political blogs. The Republican change of mind — which was referred to in politically pejorative terms such as “cave” and as a win for the president and Congressional Democrats — was a far more interesting story than the GOP complaints about the deficit, debt, spending and taxes (which in many ways were, in fact, old news). Because of its immediate effect on the payroll tax extension debate, the announcement had to be treated like a true breaking story.

The story is that the leadership actually made the decision the Friday before the Obama budget was released, but it couldn’t be made public until it was OK’d by the full Republican caucus. That agreement came Monday morning. But rather than wait until Tuesday and allow Monday’s news to be at least partly about the president’s proposal, the leadership decided to make the announcement immediately because of a concern that it would leak.

Regardless of the reason, the announcement about the payroll tax cut didn’t just step on the GOP’s complaints about the Obama budget, it stomped all over them in heavy combat boots.

The constant payroll tax cut developments that occurred through last week also kept relegating any additional news about the Obama budget to the actual or figurative back pages. The testimony of administration budget, economic and Cabinet officials in the days after the budget is released usually keeps it alive as a story because additional details emerge, the complaints get heated and political sparring occurs as committees hold hearings. This year, however, those hearings were barely noticed.

The budget also disappeared in the sea of coverage devoted to the Republican presidential primaries. And, with the House and Senate in recess this week, the budget is likely to be completely off the front pages.

There will, of course, be more debate about the federal budget this year. But last week’s disappearing act means the debate will no longer be solely about what the president is proposing, as it typically is the week after the budget is released.

With a continuing resolution in place through Sept. 30, an increase in the federal debt ceiling probably not needed until a lame-duck session and Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) assertion that the Senate will not consider a budget this year, the only major budget-related event between now and the start of fiscal 2013 will be House consideration of a budget resolution. But that debate will be less about what the president proposed than about what the Republican majority is proposing. The Obama budget will be only a part, and perhaps a small part, of that discussion.

So whether it was planned or lucky, the Obama administration may well have emerged largely unscathed from what usually is the toughest week of the year for the president’s budget. Because of this, by the time Congress returns from recess, Obama’s 2013 budget may have largely disappeared from view.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.”

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