WASHINGTON — When White House press secretary Jay Carney led a quartet of President Obama’s top advisers into an auditorium for the annual rollout of the budget Tuesday, only 40 of the room’s 120 seats were occupied — and several of the reporters there had come to ask Carney about Ukraine.
It didn’t take long to exhaust questions about the budget. “Way in the back there!” Carney called out, spotting a raised hand in the very last row. “It’s OK,” the press secretary quipped to the questioner. “There were no seats up here.”
“Budget Day,” the annual rollout of the president’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year, is usually a big deal in the capital. But not this year. By universal agreement, Obama’s budget is dead on arrival on Capitol Hill — and the White House wasn’t really pretending otherwise. Instead of offering a proposal that would be the basis for negotiations with lawmakers, White House officials drafted a document that would do Democrats no harm in the 2014 elections.
Gone was the proposal from a previous Obama budget to restrain the growth of Social Security costs. Missing was any major proposal to fix the huge long-term deficits in Medicare. Included: $1 trillion in tax increases on business and the wealthy over 10 years, and a wish list of government initiatives, with names such as “Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative,” “ConnectEDucators” and “Climate Resilience Fund.”
Gene Sperling, who is stepping down this week as Obama’s top economic policy adviser, announced: “This is a pro-growth and pro-opportunity budget.”
The problem is, it’s also a pro forma budget.
There is logic to the White House’s approach: If any budget Obama produces isn’t going to be taken seriously in Congress, he might as well propose one that won’t be a liability in this fall’s midterm campaigns. But this approach is also a surrender — an acknowledgment that the president isn’t even going to engage.
To be sure, Obama has little control over many of the factors causing his budget to be irrelevant this year. The budget deal negotiated by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in December sets spending limits for 2015 — and Murray’s Senate Budget Committee isn’t even going to draft a budget this year, which means there can be no congressional budget resolution.
Yet Obama’s budget confirmed his irrelevance by retreating from any serious attempt at reforming entitlement programs. Those programs are swelling and will grow exponentially in coming years, crowding out everything else government does, including defense spending and social programs.
The Obama plan floated the possibility of spending an additional $56 billion in 2015 beyond the Ryan-Murray accord. But even if all of the White House spending requests and tax increases were enacted, discretionary spending as a percentage of the budget would still be at a 50-year low.
At the briefing, The Washington Post’s Zachary Goldfarb asked budget director Sylvia Mathews Burwell whether she thought that 50-year low is a success or a failure. “The proposed president’s budget is the right level over the 10-year period,” she replied.
That means Obama has essentially embraced as permanent the spending cuts forced on him by congressional Republicans, and has abandoned the sort of tough choices on entitlements that would free up more funds for the domestic programs he would like to see.
Last month, a group of liberal senators asked Obama not to cut entitlement benefits in his budget. He listened, and his political base will no doubt be pleased with that short-term victory. But it comes at the cost of abandoning other things liberals would like to see.
At Tuesday’s briefing, the Obama advisers spoke of his “vision” so much that they might have been at an ophthalmology convention: “the president’s vision of making access to high-quality preschool available … the president’s vision for moving the country forward … a down payment on that vision … the president’s vision for high-school redesign … the president’s vision with respect to higher education … a budget [that] is going to represent the president’s vision.”
CNBC’s John Harwood asked Sperling to speculate about when the next budget negotiations would take place. “Clearly, they’re not going to take place this year,” Harwood said. “Do you expect that that will happen next year? Or is that something for the next” president?
Sperling declined to say, instead referring again to “what you see in the vision of the president’s budget.”
But the president’s visions will remain only that if his budget isn’t taken seriously.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.