After spending binge, White House says it will focus on deficits

Friday, November 13, 2009 - 5:26pm

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama plans to announce in next year's State of the Union address that he wants to focus extensively on cutting the federal deficit in 2010 – and will downplay other new domestic spending beyond jobs programs, according to top aides involved in the planning.

The president's plan, which the officials said was under discussion before this month’s Democratic election setbacks, represents both a practical and a political calculation by this White House.

On the practical side, Obama has spent more money on new programs in nine months than Bill Clinton did in eight years, pushing the annual deficit to $1.4 trillion. This leaves little room for big spending initiatives.

On the political side, Obama can help moderate Democrats avoid some tough votes in an election year and, perhaps more importantly, calm the nerves of independent voters who are voicing big concerns with the big spending and deficits. Even if Obama succeeds - and that’s a big if - it will be tough for many Democrats to sell themselves as deeply concerned about spending after voting for the stimulus, the bailouts, the health care legislation and a plan to address global warming, four enormous government programs.

“Democrats have to reassure voters we are not being reckless,” said a Democratic official involved in the planning. “The White House knows this and that's why we'll be hearing a lot about reducing the deficit early next year. Democrats owned this issue for the past four years and cannot afford to cede it to Republicans now."

White House budget director Peter Orszag said in a statement to POLITICO: “The President strongly believes that as the recovery strengthens and job growth returns, we will have to take the tough steps necessary to return our nation to a fiscally disciplined and sustainable path. We recognize that the projected medium-term deficits are too high, and as part of the FY 2011 budget process, we are committed to bringing them down. Our challenge is to tackle those out-year deficits in a way and at a time that does not choke off economic recovery, and the FY 2011 budget will reflect our best judgment about how to walk that line."

The big question for Obama – and the country – is whether the sudden concern about deficits will be more rhetoric than reality once his first State of the Union address concludes.

All presidents promise deficit reduction – and almost always fall short. There is good reason to be skeptical of this White House, too, on its commitment.

For starters, the White House has not dropped plans for an aggressive global warming bill early next year that will be loaded with new spending on green technology and jobs – that would be paid for with tax increases. Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf says the White House focus on deficit reduction could easily kill the cap-and-trade effort. “I think this means cap-and-trade has to go to the backburner,” he said.

Additionally, there is no evidence Democrats are willing to aggressively cut the biggest parts of the budget, such as entitlement programs and defense. Former President Bill Clinton told Senate Democrats at their policy lunch this week that one of the biggest reasons to finish health care is to allow Obama to focus on economic concerns next year – in part with more spending. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said afterward that Clinton had advised getting health care out of the way to “clear the tables and allow the focus to be on jobs and education and infrastructure.” None of that is free.

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday the White House is considering applying some money from the $700 billion financial bailout bill to deficit reduction, and that Cabinet agencies have been asked to submit two budget plans for next year, one that freezes spending at existing levels and one that trims spending by 5 percent. Congress has long history of taking those requests and piling on money for programs it favors. The only way Obama can prevent Congress from imposing its will – a tactic he has been reluctant to do during his presidency – would be to threaten vetoes. And if Obama’s political goal is to minimize tough votes, gutting domestic spending bills could mean fewer projects lawmakers can brag about back home. History shows that that’s often an impossible sale on the Hill.

Officials involved in the planning say they're looking for ways to cut spending, reduce the growth in costs in other areas besides health care, and find ways to get Republicans to share the risk.

Obama will likely find himself squeezed between economic and political pressures for much of the year. Some White House officials do not want to focus on deficits until it’s clear the economy is in full recovery. It could take another jolt of tax cuts or spending to make that happen, these officials say.

“If we try to reduce the deficit much below what’s been projected, we really run the risk of undercutting the recovery,” said Jim Horney, director of fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank.

But many moderate Democrats are deeply troubled by two recent signs of serious discontent among independent voters. The first was how badly Democrats lost among independent voters in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races. The second was a Gallup poll released this week that showed Republicans winning the independent vote by 22 points in generic matchups for House and Senate races. That same poll had the parties tied among independents in July.

Most of the competitive House and Senate races are in swing districts in which independent voters are the deciders.

“A lot of independents, Democrats and Republicans — all are concerned about is what are we going to do about this long-term debt,” Obama told ABC’s Jake Tapper Monday. “We've got to show people that we are responsible stewards for their taxpayer dollars and that we're taking some serious steps to at least lay the foundation — the pathway — for bringing those deficits down over the next several years.”