Assume a Budget Summit

Obama’s spending plan is so timid, he must be working on a smarter plan we don’t know about.

President Obama

President Obama delivered his budget today. The opposing party denounced it immediately. This is the tradition. Imagine if it applied to other Washington rituals: When House Speaker John Boehner paused after taking the gavel from former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrats could yell, “Resign!” After Obama finished his inaugural address on the steps of the Capitol, congressional leaders could have headed inside to start impeachment proceedings.

In this budget tradition, after the denunciation comes the wrangling. Party leaders took shots at each other in conference calls and press conferences, trying to shape the budget process that will play out over the next few months. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said the Republican budget was “slash and burn.” Though Obama had proposed steep cuts in discretionary spending that his liberal allies rejected, Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor said the president had failed to lead.

But this familiar theater was more irritating than usual this year. Both the president and GOP leaders had promised that they would start talking about the choices required to keep the budget deficit from growing out of control. If we restructure entitlements and streamline the tax code now, the argument went, we won’t have to make emergency drastic moves in the future. We were supposed to have the adult conversation in 2011 (year of the owl in the Chinese budget calendar). Instead, we have year of the duck. The dreary public conversation so far has been about a small, 15 percent portion of the budget. (On this budget chart  hit the “isolate discretionary spending” What’s left is small terrain of today’s budget fight.)

But what if this isn’t the predictable race to the puny that we’ve come to expect? What if the president and GOP leaders are being adults behind the scenes (or at least trying to be)? It would be the smartest way to get anything done. It would keep the entitlement conversation from getting hijacked, and it would build on the model for interaction that helped bring about the agreement last year with Republicans on extending the Bush tax cuts.

In that battle, the president put Joe Biden in a room with Mitch McConnell to work out a deal. There was also a public process—meetings of a gang of noble senators and White House officials—but the real work was being done in private. Once the details had been arranged, the president presented the deal publicly and worked hard to push it the final short stretch until it became law.

McConnell has been encouraging secret talks on a serious deficit plan. “If we’re going to do anything serious about entitlements, we’re not going to negotiate it in public,” McConnell told Politico’s Mike Allen in a recent interview. “I don’t necessarily conclude from the absence of any real discussion of entitlement reform that the president is not interested.” McConnell and the president had a private lunch recently that never made it on to Obama’s official schedule. A GOP leadership aide says they are hopeful this route will produce some fruit. White House officials brush off the idea in a way that doesn’t reveal much of their thinking.

There are obvious differences between the tax-cut deal and an agreement on the big deficit issues. Last year both sides agreed to give each other what they wanted: Republicans got the upper-income tax cuts and Democrats got spending to help the unemployed and low-income workers. Instead of splitting the baby, they decided to have twins.

This time, though, both sides will have to decide on how to apportion out the pain of a smaller budget. The degree of difficulty makes secret negotiations even more a requirement. Lawmakers have to be able to offer ideas in good faith without having interest groups and pundits react with outrage at each little peep.

If the president isn’t working something behind the scenes, he is falling short of the kind of leadership he promised. As it stands, his future-oriented agenda asks us to win the future by investing in programs like wireless Internet, high-speed rail and education. These things won’t pay off for a while. In the meantime, he’s calling on cuts that will hurt immediately. But a focus on the future makes no sense without a focus on the future problems of the deficit. No one will win the future if we don’t spend some time in the present addressing the deficit.

Republicans are falling short, too. They boast about the past election being an affirmation of their message that government has grown too large. They boast about how they were unified against a popular president and followed their small-government principles. But now they want Obama to lead when it comes to tackling entitlements? This is not a new failing of courage. When George Bush tried to reform Social Security, Republicans shrank from him. Rep. Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, has a plan for taking on the budget, but Republicans have been just as reluctant to sign on to his prescription.

If secret negotiations aren’t in the plan or already under way, we’re all sunk. There isn’t much time before the 2012 presidential race makes deal-making impossible. In the last three weeks, a senior ambassador of a U.S. ally, McConnell, and a senior White House official have all mentioned six to eight months as the time frame before presidential politics interfere with doing anything bold on domestic or foreign issues. With that kind of time pressure, someone must be working on a behind-the-scenes deal. If not, the predictable spat that played out today was an even bigger waste of time than usual.

Also in Slate, Fred Kaplan lays out even more potential cuts to the Pentagon budget. Timothy Noah explains why the GOP favors such inconsequential discretionary cuts. David Weigel reports on Republican Paul Ryan’s critique of the White House budget. Annie Lowrey describes how your household budget would look if you spent money like the federal government.Become a fan of Slate  and  John Dickerson  on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.