WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama seized an opportunity most presidents don't get. For nearly three weeks, he's been promoting the initiatives he rolled out in last month's State of the Union address without having to explain how to pay for them. But the free ride is just about over.
The rhetoric will come down to earth on Monday, as the president brings forward his blueprint for the budget year that begins Oct. 1. Already, Republicans are offering rival plans to slash tens of billions of dollars in spending. The budget will set the stage for big battles in March as a temporary spending measure to keep the government functioning runs out and as federal borrowing fast approaches the $14.3 trillion limit set by current law.
Traditionally, presidents submit their budgets within a week of delivering the big speech, and quickly find themselves on the defensive and bogged down over the details. For a variety of reasons, Obama had the luxury of a long budget postponement.
"He's been able to talk about all the good stuff he wants to do," said veteran budget analyst Stan Collender. "Of course, it will all come to an end next week when he has to start talking about his actual budget. But my guess is the White House looked at those three weeks and said, 'OK, we've got an opportunity that most presidents never have. How do we make it work for us?"
Obama used the hiatus to court his Democratic base while reaching out to Republican leaders and big business.
He traveled the country, telling audiences he'll "win the future" by making the U.S. more competitive globally. He pressed business leaders to stop hoarding cash and to "ask yourselves what you can do for America." He wooed them by talking up free trade pacts, lower corporate tax rates and getting burdensome government regulations off their backs.
Obama also promoted his plans for high-speed rail, wind farms and entrepreneurship — all in the name of producing more jobs.
On Thursday, he was in Michigan's rural Upper Peninsula to talk about his goal of giving nearly all Americans access to high-speed wireless services.
Earlier, he gave a televised interview to conservative Fox news host Bill O'Reilly on Super Bowl Sunday, continued his charm offensive with a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Monday, and held a private White House lunch with House Republican leaders on Wednesday.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., cited a "fairly robust conversation" at the lunch "about the need for all of us to work together to signal that we're serious about cutting spending."
No matter that both sides are still talking past each other — even as they claim they want to find common ground.
Did Obama and the Republicans agree on any single item? "Not that I'm aware of," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
The two sides are still far apart, having staked out clear differences they will carry into the 2012 elections, and the time for actual negotiations and compromise is still far off.
The president is proposing more spending on infrastructure, education and other job-creating 'investments." Republicans reject what they see as more runaway stimulus spending — and focus almost exclusively on spending restraint and deficit reduction.
American University political scientist James Thurber said Obama is trying to be pragmatic even though "he never gets very specific" on just how he'd reduce trillion-dollar-plus deficits at the same time he's pumping more government money into new programs.
Still, Thurber suggested that Obama had lowered the temperature on partisan rhetoric by reaching out to corporate America and the GOP leadership. "This is symbolically important. And what both sides are not doing is important. They're not expressing extreme partisan anger toward each other." Both sides are making calculated political bets. Republicans, beholden to tea party activists and other fiscal conservatives for their mid-term victories, promised to cut spending and make it their No. 1 domestic priority.
"That's what they ran on," said Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute think tank. "That's what the tea party mandate is. They put themselves into a box."
Obama got the three-week grace period between the State of the Union and his budget submission because his new budget director, Jacob Lew, wasn't confirmed by the Senate until after Election Day and needed extra time to get up to speed. Also, budget writing has been complicated by Congress' failure to pass individual appropriations bills to pay for government operations in the current fiscal year. The government is operating under stopgap spending legislation.
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