Even before he submits his budget, President Obama is hearing loud and clear from Republicans that it is already "dead on arrival." It is the same cry presidents hear every year when Congress is held by the opposing party, once leading a frustrated Ronald Reagan to plaintively ask: "Why do I even bother sending them?"
Reagan's staff had a simple answer at the time, reminding him that federal law requires the White House to send up a budget every year. But they also knew what Obama's advisers understand today, that a president's budget can accomplish much, no matter how much it is initially eviscerated by critics and no matter how little is recognizable in the final document adopted by Congress. It is why this White House sees the new budget as a way to eliminate the sequester, push programs for the middle class, put Republicans on the defensive, and lay the groundwork for the 2016 campaign.
Few things set the Washington agenda more clearly than a president's budget done well and treated seriously by a White House. Unfortunately, that has been one of the problems for Democrats in the Obama years. Too often, this White House has treated the budget exercise as an inconvenience, openly flouting the law by submitting it weeks or months late, inadequately marketing its provisions, and shrugging off Congress's failure to actually pass a budget.
This time, the administration promises, will be different. This time, officials have devoted more effort to selling the budget even before sending it up to the Hill, when, for the first time in years, they will meet the statutory deadline for doing so. And this time, they insist, they are realistic about the fate that awaits their proposals when the budget reaches a House and a Senate now firmly under the control of Republicans.
"No president has ever put forward a budget with the expectation that Congress is going to pass it in its current form," said White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Thursday. "That was even true when ... there was a president whose party controlled both houses of Congress." The administration's most optimistic outlook is that when the budget is released on Monday it will be "the beginning of a negotiation" with Republicans.
The value of a president's budget—as Reagan learned when Democrats controlled the Congress and dismissed his submissions at DOA—is that it both sets the national agenda and makes clear a president's vision and its cost. "Budgets are important," said Earnest, "because they're a way that we can codify our values and our priorities." After Monday, he added, Republicans "have their say."
William Galston went through this exercise when he was President Clinton's chief domestic policy adviser and Republicans ran the House. "It is important to know that the fact that the package as a whole is declared DOA doesn't mean that all the individual pieces are," he told National Journal, stressing that a president can use a budget to do many things at once: please his party's base in one program, lay the groundwork for his party's next presidential campaign in another, and "send some signals to the opposition party that there are areas where they can do business."
That is why, Galston said, you need to look beyond the expected denunciations from Republican spokesmen. "Look at how people in charge of different parts of the agenda—the committee chairs—react to pieces. Those chairs have choices. They can focus on what divides them from the White House, or they can focus on what conceivably might be common ground."
Isabel Sawhill, associate director of the Office of Management and Budget under Clinton and now a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, said the mere exercise of producing a budget benefits an administration. "It's not just the president. It is a vehicle for getting everyone in the administration and all the Cabinet secretaries on the same page. The process of putting the budget together is a process of negotiation among all the different parts of the administration, with the president himself finally resolving any disagreements."
In the end, she said, the document "sets what people are going to be talking about." In this case, Obama hopes it is middle-class economics. But that will happen only if the president is committed to selling the budget over and over again, something he did only fitfully on his health care reform.
Rudolph Penner, who served in Gerald Ford's OMB and headed the Congressional Budget Office when Reagan was president, noted that Dwight Eisenhower never stopped talking about his budget, vetoing anything at odds with it. Gerald Ford personally oversaw his budget, adding line items he knew would win over members of Congress. And Bill Clinton "had a photographic memory" for the budget, according to Sawhill. "He was both a most detailed person and a person who saw the broader picture," she said. And he never stopped stressing his top budget priorities.
That has not been the case for Obama during his presidency.
"If you're a cynic, then you can say they are only doing what is minimally necessary to comply with the law," said Sawhill. And even that was has not always been the case. The law makes clear that the budget must be submitted by the first Monday in February. With very few exceptions—almost always in the first year of a new administration—previous presidents abided by that law. But in Obama's early years, reporters who asked about the deadline were greeted with disdain bordering on contempt. Before this year, that deadline was met only in 2010. And in most years, the deadline was missed by two to three months, sending a clear message that a budget was not a very high priority.
The budget, said Penner, was in danger of losing its clout as it became clear to Congress that "presidents took it less seriously and were more careless in its formulation."
But Earnest insists that Monday's on-time budget should be taken very seriously and will set the stage for the coming showdown with Congress and brushed aside the many declarations of "dead on arrival."
"We certainly are never pleased to see Republicans unilaterally rule out making any progress on policies that are beneficial to middle-class families," Earnest said. "But it certainly wouldn't be the first time that they've done that. They've done that for many times, maybe even daily, over the last several years."