Dana Milbank
Opinion writer February 13, 2012

Gene Sperling’s sports metaphors collided so often during the White House budget rollout that it’s a wonder the man didn’t pull a hamstring.

The head of President Obama’s National Economic Council suited up for a Monday afternoon news conference with a full lineup of athletic cliches. “We believe manufacturing punches above its weight economically,” he said, and the administration’s trade policy “will level the playing field against countries around the world.”

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

Sperling, who held the same position under the less-athletic Bill Clinton, said his basketball-loving boss’s policies are “as complementary as good hitting, good pitching and good fielding is for a baseball team — or, to seasonally adjust, good shooting, good rebounding and good playmaking.”

By the end of the session with reporters, Sperling was just running up the score. “So I think this president has very much stepped up to the plate,” he concluded.

All the sports talk amounted to a head fake, or perhaps a quarterback sneak, because the real game the White House was playing was dodgeball: evading anything resembling a serious budget proposal.

The White House’s budget for fiscal 2013 begins with a broken promise, adds some phony policy assumptions, throws in a few rosy forecasts and omits all kinds of painful decisions. Even then, the proposal would add $1 trillion more to the national debt than Obama contemplated a few months ago — and it is a non-starter on Capitol Hill, where even Senate Democrats have no plans to take it up. It is, in other words, exactly what it was supposed to be: a campaign document.

The opposition picked up Sperling’s metaphor and ran with it. “He has punted again,” said Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the House Budget Committee chairman.

Actually, it was more of a kickoff, and Ryan opted to receive: He’ll introduce his own budget in the coming weeks, and it is likely to have large tax cuts for the wealthy and deep cuts to entitlement programs — giving Obama exactly the foil he wants for the fall campaign.

But as a budget writer, Obama whiffed. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, although offering a few kind words for the president’s proposal, said the plan “would barely stabilize the debt — and at too high a level.”

The budget calls for hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending. It shows deficits exceeding $600 billion in every year but one over the next decade, while the debt grows to $18.7 trillion.

As such, the rollout couldn’t have been more purely political if it had included a balloon drop. After Obama gave his budget speech, Jeffrey Zients, the acting budget director, appeared with colleagues at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to vouch for the plan.

“As a business person,” he said, “I believe the president’s budget makes the right investments. . . . This is good for business.”

Wearing a fine suit, purple tie and spread-collar shirt for the performance, the multimillionaire management consultant pointed out that the budget is much more responsible than an imaginary “baseline” budget, in which all tax cuts are extended permanently.

Zients introduced a colleague, Domestic Policy Council Director Cecilia Munoz, announcing that she “is going to double-click on the pillar of education.” Munoz followed up by explaining that “with the education piece, there are three or four buckets.”

But the reporters did not wish to hear about pillars and buckets. Reuters’s Caren Bohan asked about Obama’s promise, upon entering the White House, to cut the deficit in half by the end of his term. Zients and Sperling looked at each other and hesitated. “When the president came into office, we knew things weren’t in good shape, but we didn’t realize how bad they actually were,” Zients finally answered.

The Washington Post’s Lori Montgomery asked why the projected debt had swelled by $1 trillion since September. Zients spoke about “differences in economic assumptions.”

But that didn’t hold up, because the Economist’s Greg Ip pointed out that the White House is using an optimistic 3 percent forecast for economic growth this year, higher than the Federal Reserve and private-sector forecasts.

Alan Krueger, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, said the lofty projection was made “under the presumption that the president’s proposals will become law” — a presumption that does not seem at all safe.

CBS’s Nora O’Donnell asked why the White House decided to “take a pass on entitlements” in the budget.

“I don’t think we take a pass,” Zients replied.

Technically, he’s correct. It was more of a fumble.