The pattern is now familiar. President Obama demagogues his opponents or avoids an issue (e.g. human rights, Libya). Eventually he makes rhetorical concessions to his critics (e.g. Arab democratization, his charm offensive with Jewish Americans). But despite the adjustment in language his policy lags or contradicts his revised speechifying. We don’t tighten sanctions on Cuba after Alan Gross’s conviction. We don’t lead; instead we abdicate leadership in the Libya war. Obama no longer “condemns” Israel for building apartments in its capital, but the public and private strong-arming of the Jewish state goes on.
This pattern is nowhere more evident than it is with the budget. For two years Obama insisted we weren’t spending enough and fiscal restraint was daft. He delivered a State of the Union address this year that talked about “investments” but didn’t offer anything on entitlement reform and sought to freeze spending at elevated levels. Then he sensed he was losing the public and his credibility.
So yesterday he delivered a speech in which he informed his base that they were terribly wrong to question the need for fiscal restraint. Like an erratic professor he chided his base for following his lead:
Even after our economy recovers, our government will still be on track to spend more money than it takes in throughout this decade and beyond. That means we’ll have to keep borrowing more from countries like China. And that means more of your tax dollars will go toward paying off the interest on all the loans we keep taking out. By the end of this decade, the interest we owe on our debt could rise to nearly $1 trillion. Just the interest payments.
Then, as the Baby Boomers start to retire and health care costs continue to rise, the situation will get even worse. By 2025, the amount of taxes we currently pay will only be enough to finance our health care programs, Social Security, and the interest we owe on our debt. That’s it. Every other national priority – education, transportation, even national security – will have to be paid for with borrowed money.
Ultimately, all this rising debt will cost us jobs and damage our economy. It will prevent us from making the investments we need to win the future
Well, he didn’t acknowledge that the debt crisis is staring us in the face, not a distant problem. But he put the kibosh on liberals’ rhetoric that entitlement restraint is unnecessary. (“So any serious plan to tackle our deficit will require us to put everything on the table, and take on excess spending wherever it exists in the budget.”)
But in typical Obama-style he didn’t provide anything commensurate with his rhetoric. As Yuval Levin details:
[The president’s proposal] includes some fairly silly gimmicks. For instance, the president defines his near-term goals using a 12-year budget window, to give the illusion that he would achieve savings on the level of the fiscal commission and the Ryan budget (both of which use the usual 10-year window required by the budget process). He guarantees long-term budget reductions (and therefore on paper guarantees the achievement of his goals without specifying particular means) through a “trigger” that would go into effect at the end of Obama’s second term, forcing arbitrary budget cuts upon his wretched successor when the Obama “framework” has failed to reduce spending. The fact sheet speaks in glittering generalities about such things as “a target of $360 billion in savings from other mandatory programs by 2023,” and commitments to “enact anti-fraud measures.” It implicitly acknowledges that Obamacare would fail to control health-care costs and yet proposes to control those costs by just doing more of what Obamacare would do—tighter rationing within the current program, rather than a fundamentally different approach to helping seniors pay for health insurance.
When he was ignoring the debt problem he was at least intellectually consistent. (No debt problem, no serious debt reduction!) But now that he’s conceded that Rep. Paul Ryan’s diagnosis is correct (although denying its severity) Obama is left with no serious policy solution to the problem he now acknowledges.
There are two ways to join the debate and advance serious debt reduction. The first would be for the president to submit a new, complete budget that can be scored. His budget director can then answer questions about its details. The second would be for the president to debate Ryan in public, allowing them to identify the gaps between their specific solutions. The first would be appropriate, but the latter would be more revealing. And it would be a heck of a lot of fun.