Barack Obama on Monday launched what he promised would be an enduring bipartisan process to bring down the fiscal deficits that have started to explode under his watch.
Mr Obama, who called 130 lawmakers and members of think-tanks to the White House for what he described as a “fiscal sustainability summit”, added that by the end of his first term, he would halve the budget deficit he inherited from George W. Bush.
He also promised to deliver a more transparent budget that would factor in the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, natural disasters and the likelihood that Mr Bush’s tax cuts would expire in 2010. Mr Obama’s headline budget is due to be announced on Thursday.
“In order to address our fiscal crisis, we have to be candid about its scope,” Mr Obama said. “For too long, our budget process in Washington has been an exercise in deception, a series of accounting tricks to hide the extent of our spending and the shortfalls in our revenue.”
Some critics dismissed the half-day gathering as a public relations stunt in the midst of galloping budget deficits. Last week saw the signing of the $787bn fiscal stimulus package, while this year’s budget deficit is expected to exceed $1,500bn.
But participants said the event charted a course that could result in bipartisan action to rein in the sharply rising costs of entitlements, particularly on healthcare. Although Mr Obama denied suffering from “summititis”, he promised another summit next week on healthcare reform.
“To devote this much time to long-term fiscal discipline in the middle of everything else that is on is plate is a very encouraging sign,” said Maya MacGuineas, head of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, who attended the sustainability summit. “He has planted a clear flag in the ground for fiscal discipline.”
Analysts said the meeting could result in the creation of a bipartisan commission that would work to a deadline later this year. “It might sound odd to be spending like a drunken sailor and holding meetings about fiscal discipline, but it does make sense,” said Norm Ornstein, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Although Lawrence Summers, head of the National Economic Council, fell asleep on the podium, most attendees, including Republicans, appear to have appreciated the exercise. There was even some light-heartedness.
John McCain, the former presidential candidate, recommended Mr Obama get rid of his planned new presidential helicopter, the cost of which now equals that of Air Force One. Mr Obama said the existing chopper was adequate, but added that he had no experience of personal helicopters.