Do You Know Where the Obama 2011 Budget Is?

Posted February 8, 2010 at 5:11pm

Why isn’t the Obama fiscal 2011 budget that was released just eight days ago dominating the political conversation inside and outside the Beltway? Better question: Why is almost no one talking about it?

[IMGCAP(1)]It’s not because, as some tried to claim on the day that it was released, the president’s budget is just a repeat of what was proposed last year. While there’s no doubt that some proposals were included in the fiscal 2010 request, that’s to be expected when an ever-smaller part of the budget is discretionary and that’s where the White House focuses its attention. Besides, the proposed three-year freeze on a portion of domestic spending is new, and the plan to let some tax cuts expire and extend others at the end of 2010 is now imminent as opposed to just envisioned. In most years, a proposed spending limit, tax cut and tax increase would all be major controversies that would be political topic A.

But they’re not.

Part of the reason that the Obama budget seems to have disappeared from view is that the White House clearly doesn’t want to talk about it. In fact, the rollout of this year’s budget was comparatively limited. The Obama administration barely did one of the things that many previous administrations have done to dominate the news in the days before the budget was released: leak the details to generate positive stories. Another frequently used tactic — having key economic policy team members interviewed on the Sunday talk shows around the release of the budget so that the debate is on your terms — also didn’t happen this year. Other than the day the budget was released, Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag mostly kept his head down.

Even the president’s radio address Saturday wasn’t about the budget — it was about his small-businesses proposals.

This is a continuation of a trend that started more than a decade ago, when the arrival of the president’s budget changed from being a hugely positive to a mostly negative political event for the White House. As deficits have mushroomed, as the value of a stimulative fiscal policy in an economic downturn when monetary policy choices are limited has gone largely unexplained and unappreciated, and when every option to reduce the deficit is at least as politically difficult as the deficit itself, it’s not hard to understand why this or any administration wants to limit the discussion of its budget. Being a one-day story that disappears quickly is the preferred strategy these days.

But it’s not all about what the White House wants. As I first discussed in the Jan. 19 Fiscal Fitness (“They Just Don’t Make Presidential Budgets Like They Used To”), media coverage has changed a great deal over the past decade in a number of ways that significantly limits the discussion. This includes far less in-depth reporting, fewer column inches and airtime devoted to stories that used to get multiple pages and lengthy special reports, and a growing tendency of the print media to do features because, even for daily papers, the hard news is already known by the time the publications hit the streets.

Add to this the fact that the Obama administration did a good job limiting the coverage by not having its economic team talk that much about the budget after it was released. Few administration interviews meant that there also were fewer opportunities for those opposed to the White House’s plans to respond. This limited the personality- and partisan-driven controversies that create news and, therefore, the follow-up stories that in the past typically have provided the fuel for the discussion after the budget was released.

Finally, the president’s budget has been less of a topic of conversation because the real story is about what, if anything, Congress will do rather than what the White House has proposed. After the budget was released, the focus almost immediately shifted to how the House and Senate would react. House Budget ranking member Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget proposal, with its large Medicare cuts that even the GOP leadership wouldn’t support without qualifications, also took attention away from the Obama plan. The talk inside the Beltway quickly shifted to whether there would or could be a budget resolution this year, whether reconciliation would be used for a variety of things, whether individual appropriations were possible or a continuing resolution was likely, etc. The discussion may have been prompted by the numbers and proposals in the Obama budget, but the budget itself wasn’t the focus.

The Obama budget will make a comeback later this year when Congress considers the 2011 budget resolution and there are comparisons between what the president proposed to what is considered. If the budget resolution is very different from what the White House proposed, Republicans likely will consider offering the Obama budget as an alternative just so that Democrats are forced to vote against it. (The Ryan plan will be treated similarly, but that’s a story for another day.) In the meantime, the Obama 2011 budget will likely continue to fade 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.”