Annotating Obama’s 2006 speech against boosting the debt limit
“I think if you look at the history, getting votes for the debt ceiling is always difficult, and budgets in this town are always difficult.”
— President Obama, news conference, Jan. 14, 2013
“The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. government can’t pay its own bills. ... I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America’s debt limit.”
— Then-Sen. Barack Obama, floor speech in the Senate, March 16, 2006
As the saying goes, “where you stand depends on where you sit.” This is certainly true of the votes to boost the national debt limit, where almost by tradition, the party not holding the presidency refused to support an increase in the debt limit. (One big exception, as we have noted, is in 1953 during the Eisenhower presidency.)
The president has acknowledged that his previous vote against the debt limit was “a political vote.” On Monday, at a news conference, he urged lawmakers to boost the debt limit without conditions: “We’re going to have to make sure that people are looking at this in a responsible way, rather than just through the lens of politics.” (In other words, don’t do what I did back when I was a lawmaker.)
In making his case, Obama noted: “The debt ceiling is not a question of authorizing more spending. Raising the debt ceiling does not authorize more spending. It simply allows the country to pay for spending that Congress has already committed to.” He added that he was willing to have a “conversation” about reducing the deficit, but the debt limit was not the right vehicle.
With that in mind, we were curious to look back at Obama’s 2006 speech and examine the case he made at the time for not supporting a boost in the debt limit. Below is the entire speech. At key points, we will offer commentary or further explanation.
Obama’s 2006 speech on the debt limit
“Mr. President, I rise today to talk about America’s debt problem. The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. government can’t pay its own bills.”
Here, Obama is sounding a bit Tea Partyish.
“It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our government’s reckless fiscal policies. Over the past five years, our federal debt has increased by $3.5 trillion to $8.6 trillion. That is ‘‘trillion’’ with a ‘‘T.’’ That is money that we have borrowed from the Social Security trust fund, borrowed from China and Japan, borrowed from American taxpayers.”
Obama’s language is remarkably similar to charges made by the Mitt Romney campaign against Obama during the 2012 election, though Romney mostly focused on the debt held by China. (Japan was ignored.) When Obama took office in the midst of the Great Recession, the total national debt was $10.6 trillion; it is now $16.4 trillion.
“And over the next five years, between now and 2011, the president’s budget will increase the debt by almost another $3.5 trillion.”
It actually increased $5 trillion by the start of fiscal 2011.
“Numbers that large are sometimes hard to understand. Some people may wonder why they matter. Here is why: This year, the federal government will spend $220 billion on interest. That is more money to pay interest on our national debt than we’ll spend on Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
“That is more money to pay interest on our debt this year than we will spend on education, homeland security, transportation and veterans benefits combined. It is more money in one year than we are likely to spend to rebuild the devastated gulf coast in a way that honors the best of America. And the cost of our debt is one of the fastest growing expenses in the federal budget.”
Despite the increase in the debt the past seven years, interest costs actually have dropped, to about $200 billion a year, because interest rates have fallen so much during the economic slowdown. But if interest rates go up again, interest expense will soar.
“This rising debt is a hidden domestic enemy, robbing our cities and states of critical investments in infrastructure like bridges, ports and levees; robbing our families and our children of critical investments in education and health-care reform; robbing our seniors of the retirement and health security they have counted on.
“Every dollar we pay in interest is a dollar that is not going to investment in America’s priorities. Instead, interest payments are a significant tax on all Americans — a debt tax that Washington doesn’t want to talk about. If Washington were serious about honest tax relief in this country, we would see an effort to reduce our national debt by returning to responsible fiscal policies.”
“But we are not doing that. Despite repeated efforts by Senators Conrad and Feingold, the Senate continues to reject a return to the commonsense pay-go rules that used to apply. Previously, pay-go rules applied both to increases in mandatory spending and to tax cuts. The Senate had to abide by the commonsense budgeting principle of balancing expenses and revenues.
“Unfortunately, the principle was abandoned, and now the demands of budget discipline apply only to spending. As a result, tax breaks have not been paid for by reductions in Federal spending, and thus the only way to pay for them has been to increase our deficit to historically high levels and borrow more and more money. Now we have to pay for those tax breaks plus the cost of borrowing for them. Instead of reducing the deficit, as some people claimed, the fiscal policies of this administration and its allies in Congress will add more than $600 million in debt for each of the next five years. That is why I will once again co-sponsor the pay-go amendment and continue to hope that my colleagues will return to a smart rule that has worked in the past and can work again.”
The rules were restored in 2010.
“Our debt also matters internationally. My friend, the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, likes to remind us that it took 42 presidents 224 years to run up only $1 trillion of foreign-held debt. This administration did more than that in just five years.”
This is also similar to another line used by Romney against Obama during the 2012 campaign.
“Now, there is nothing wrong with borrowing from foreign countries. But we must remember that the more we depend on foreign nations to lend us money, the more our economic security is tied to the whims of foreign leaders whose interests might not be aligned with ours.
“Increasing America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that ‘the buck stops here.’ Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better. I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America’s debt limit.”
Reading the speech seven years later, Obama is correct that it was a political vote. He never really explains what he would do differently or how he would provide leadership on reducing the deficit. He just decries the rising debt, though he hints at possibly supporting tax increases, since he complains that tax cuts have been deficit-financed.
After Obama finished speaking, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) rose to rebut his comments.
“Mr. President, I urge my colleagues to vote in favor of final passage. Raising the debt limit is necessary to preserve the full faith and credit of the U.S. government.
“We cannot as a Congress pass spending bills and tax bills and then refuse to pay our bills. Refusing to raise the debt limit is like refusing to pay your credit card bill — after you’ve used your credit card.
“The time to control the deficits and debt is when we are voting on the spending bills and the tax bills that create it. Raising the debt limit is about meeting the obligations we have already incurred. We must meet our obligations. Vote for this bill.”
Here, Grassley has found his inner President Obama. The increase in the debt limit passed on a vote of 52 to 48, with a handful of Republicans joining all Democrats (including then-Senators Joe Biden and Hillary Rodham Clinton) in opposition. (Grassley has no great record on the debt ceiling, generally voting for increases when Bush was president and against them when Obama was president.)
The Pinocchio Test
This is why many Americans hate politics.
The young senator from Illinois presumably did not want to buck the rest of his party establishment in voting for increasing the debt limit — not when there were just enough Republicans willing to support a president from their own party. But Obama would be on much more solid ground today if he had given a speech back in 2006 that sounded more like his news conference in 2013.
For making an argument that the president now decries as politics, he earns the upside-down Pinocchio, signifying a major-league flip-flop. (We have rarely given this ruling, but are eager for other examples from readers.)
Check out our candidate Pinocchio Tracker