With House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan unveiling his new budget plan today, the question in many quarters has already shifted to how will President Barack Obama respond.
If a recent New York Times article looking back on Obama’s response to Ryan’s previous budget last April is any indication, the answer could wildly shift on the smallest turn of fortune. The story provides an inside look at the chaotic moments before Obama gave a speech smearing the Republican budget as a stunned Ryan sat in the front row.
“There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires,” Obama thundered at George Washington University. “And I don’t think there’s anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill.”
With Ryan stuck in his seat, Obama turned the substantive budget director into a straw man intent on building an America where “roads crumble,” “bridges collapse” and “families who have children with autism or Down’s syndrome … fend for themselves.”
To hear The New York Times tell the story, however, Obama might have chosen very different words had he only known that Ryan was in the audience – never mind, of course, that the White House had extended the invitation.
The paper’s account of the frantic moments before the President stepped on stage crackles with tension. Here is an excerpt:
President Obama was backstage at an auditorium at George Washington University last April preparing to give a major speech, when William M. Daley, then his chief of staff, spied an unexpected guest in the audience: Representative Paul D. Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, whose budget plan Mr. Obama was about to shred.
“Try to tell the president!” Mr. Daley directed an aide.
It was too late to deliver a warning.
As readers, we are left to wonder what could have been had the message only reached Obama sooner. We can imagine a young aide with arms outstretched, hopelessly running toward the president. The story is so incredible as to be not credible.
It is hard to believe that the White House could have been unaware of Ryan’s presence not only because he was sitting in the front row but also because Obama opened the speech by acknowledging the presence of the bipartisan fiscal commission on which Ryan served.
It is hard to believe that the substance of the speech would have changed even with more advanced notice. Would Daley have changed the numbers in the speech or just the words? Had the White House previously assumed that Ryan would fail to see the speech on television or read one of the hundreds of articles the next day?
Above all, it is hard to believe because this is not an isolated “what if” moment. Every time, events have handed Obama an opportunity to get serious about budget policy, he has decided to play politics instead. There was the moment when he could have embraced the recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson commission but distanced himself instead. Then, there was the moment when Obama gave a prime-time speech about the debt limit but chose to focus on proposals already off the table.
A good storyteller could inject suspense into any of these moments. But when viewed together, they form a trend that will continue for as long as Obama remains in the Oval Office. Don’t look for any real suspense on the budget until November, and hopefully then there will be no “what ifs.”