Obama Proves His Choreography Skills With Budget Rollout

Posted March 2, 2009 at 2:59pm

You can’t help but admire the brilliant choreography that the Obama administration used last week to release its fiscal 2010 budget.

[IMGCAP(1)]My guess is that most presidents would prefer not to have to submit a budget to Congress. Not only is the preparation of the budget an enormous drain of an administration’s time, energy and resources, but its submission very nicely sets up the White House for a heaping dose of criticism at the start of the year. No matter what the situation, the budget always includes so many difficult choices and gets into so much detail that there’s simply no way everyone — and sometimes anyone — is happy with what’s proposed. Few people look at the big picture. No matter who you are — Republican or Democrat; conservative, liberal or moderate; from a rural, suburban or urban area — you can always find something not to like.

That’s why the release of the president’s budget is one of the biggest reasons that the year typically starts on a negative note, with the White House on the defensive.

It’s also the reason that many administrations try to choreograph the budget’s submission. Rather than simply sending its budget out on its own doing a solo and, therefore, being the only thing on which people focus, the White House often tries to do what most outstanding choreographers do: Impress the audience before the featured dancer — in this case, the release of the budget — even arrives on stage. No matter how good the star might be, the goal is to make her (or in this case, it) look even better.

In most years, the choreography used to introduce the budget is pedestrian, commonplace and ineffective. First, a few details are leaked to preferred reporters so that a favorable story or two appear over a weekend. Second, the director of the Office of Management and Budget and perhaps other economic advisers do a two-step by appearing on one or more talk shows that Sunday. Third, the budget is released the next day and the heavy criticism begins.

By contrast, the choreography that the Obama administration used to introduce its budget last week was so impressive that it seemed to be the equivalent of a Jerome Robbins ballet instead of the Elaine Benes-like dance movement that has been used by most other presidents.

Budget week started with the White House first holding a summit on Monday that focused attention not on what it was going to propose later in the week, but rather on its strategy for reducing the deficit in the future. The very clear message was not about what the administration was going to propose, but rather that it was taking deficit reduction very seriously and that it would begin making that happen as soon as the economy allowed it. Not only did the meeting dominate that day’s headlines with setup stories about what was to come later in the day, it also led the news Tuesday with reports on what was actually discussed.

Last Tuesday, the big story of the dance again was not yet the budget. Instead, even though President Barack Obama was going to outline his budget when he addressed Congress later that night, the choreography directed everyone to its focus on the economy as a whole. The speech did provide a few hints about what would be released two days later, but the budget definitely was not the primary focus. It was strong, forcefully delivered and, according to the polls, exceptionally well-received. That was the Wednesday story: Obama was on the case and had public support for what he wanted to do.

Rather than immediately stepping on the applause the speech received, the White House then waited until Thursday to release the budget. As usual, the budget engendered a good deal of criticism from those who didn’t like something. But the White House had built up a great deal of general support by the time that its budget made an entrance and much of the audience was already on its feet applauding when it occurred. By the time it took center stage, the budget was part of a much larger piece of work.

If you weren’t watching closely, that was when the budget dance appeared to end. But it actually continued the next day, when the president went to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to announce his plan for withdrawing troops from Iraq. Although there are obvious and substantial spending implications of that decision, the choreography changed the focus away from the budget to something else. That didn’t mute the criticism of what had been proposed the day before, it just made it less newsworthy.

Finally, the president went to a professional basketball game Friday night and sat in the stands rather than in a skybox. The pictures showed him relaxed, smiling and getting high-fives from fans. He got back to the budget Saturday in his weekly radio address. His OMB director was then the only Obama economic official who appeared on a Sunday talk show.

The administration’s George Balanchine-like choreography doesn’t mean that everything that Obama proposed will be approved. Many of the proposals are just as contentious now as they would have been had there been no dancing at all. They include health care, Medicare, energy and taxes, and they take on many powerful constituencies.

But the choreography does mean that the administration has far more momentum and will be able to be far less defensive after its budget has been released than has been typical of most presidencies. The value of that should not be underestimated as the debate continues through the rest of the year.

Stan Collender is managing director at Qorvis Communications and author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.— His blog is Capital Gains and Games.