Barack Obama calls them the Propeller-Heads, the cheerful band of financial nerds he has charged with saving America’s economy. And on the Friday before Presidents’ Day weekend, they were ready to show him the latest piece of their rescue plan: the 2010 federal budget. Having just squeezed through Congress what may be the largest spending bill in history, the President now needed to do something that would make the stimulus fight look easy: show the country and the world that he was as serious about preventing waste as he was about promoting growth. Only a lean federal budget would restore consumer confidence, keep congressional spending hawks in line and reassure wary foreigners so they would keep lending America the money it needs to climb out of this deep, dark hole.
When Obama walked into the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing, his economic wizards, led by Budget Director Peter Orszag and economy boss Larry Summers, were all wearing rainbow-colored baseball caps topped with goofy blue propellers. Obama laughed. He knew better than anyone else that it would take some mighty brainpower–and luck and political genius–to get this next stage right. Orszag had been working the problem for months, leading a four-hour meeting on his birthday, Dec. 16, in Chicago, at which Obama showed up with a vanilla cake. Orszag, Summers, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Orszag’s deputy Robert Nabors agreed that there was no avoiding a deficit this year of about $1.5 trillion, including the bank bailout and the stimulus bill. They were prepared to swim even deeper into the red next year, expanding Obama’s initiatives on renewable energy and high-speed rail lines and raising the deficit to 10% of gross domestic product, the highest figure since World War II. But assuming the economy has begun to turn around, the two-year spending splurge would be followed by a steady return to fiscal sanity: Obama wanted to bring the deficit down to 3% of GDP–still a whopping $546 billion–by 2014. So what is the magic formula How does the White House buy time to spend now without spooking the markets or stoking fears that the U.S. intends to inflate its way out of debt Obama’s aides say they can do that by winding down the war in Iraq, cutting fat and raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans–and, later, by entitlement reform. All during the campaign, Obama talked about going through the budget “line by line,” zeroing out programs that don’t work or have outlived their usefulness. Even as he signed the stimulus bill, he had already pivoted to the next message. “We will need to do everything in the short term to get our economy moving again,” he said, “while at the same time recognizing that we have inherited a trillion-dollar deficit, and we need to begin restoring fiscal discipline and taming our exploding deficits over the long term.”