The Magazine

The Return of Big Government

For Obama, a spending spree and fiscal prudence are synonymous.

Mar 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 24 • By FRED BARNES
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When Barack Obama met with TV anchors at a White House lunch last week, he assured them he likes being president. "And it turns out I'm very good at it," he added. Well, not exactly. What Obama is actually very good at is campaigning. He did it for two years as a presidential candidate, and it's pretty much what he's been doing in the six weeks since he was sworn in.

It's working. Despite the bad economy he inherited, the political circumstances, for Obama at least, are favorable. He's popular, as new presidents usually are. He talks about "hard choices" but hasn't made any. With large Democratic majorities in Congress, he's free of worry about rebellion on Capitol Hill. Despite glitches in picking his cabinet, his cool demeanor is unshaken. He governs campaign-style, largely with speeches and announcements. No wonder he enjoys being president. Accountability comes later.

But there's a problem. Candidates don't have to deal with reality. They talk about the wonderful things they can accomplish as if advocating them is the same as achieving them. They live in a world of political make-believe in which everything from reconciling conflicting interests to paying for costly programs is easy.

That's the world Obama continues to inhabit. Like a candidate, he's a quick-change artist, constantly switching roles. Twice last week, he insisted he doesn't favor "big government." Then he proposed a budget that would vastly expand the size and reach of the federal government, add $600 billion to the deficit, and produce a one-year shortfall of $1.2 trillion (or more). This prompted House Republican leader John Boehner to proclaim, quite accurately, that the "era of big government is back."

That wasn't all. For Obama, a spending spree and fiscal prudence are practically synonymous. He conducted a "fiscal responsibility summit" a few days after pushing a $1 trillion "stimulus" bill through Congress, not a cent of it offset by cuts in spending programs. Following the summit, Obama declared a "consensus" was emerging between Democrats and Republicans on some issues--his issues--and could be forged on others. He was dreaming.

Even the stimulus, which only three Republicans in Congress voted for, represented more agreement than not in Obama's view. "If you look at the differences, they amounted to maybe 10, maybe 15 percent of the total package," Obama said. No, the differences amounted to maybe 75 percent. Glossing over differences is a familiar tack. Candidates do it.

Next came Obama's nationally televised speech to Congress. It was a campaign speech posing as a presidential address to the nation. In fact, it sounded like a reprise of speeches Obama gave during the campaign. The purpose was not to explain or defend or justify new domestic programs but simply to proclaim them necessary. This Obama did brilliantly.

But, again more like a candidate than a president, he said things he couldn't possibly believe and indulged in rhetorical tricks. "Nobody messes with Joe," Obama said, referring to Vice President Biden, who will "lead a tough, unprecedented oversight effort" to keep the stimulus on track. In truth, nobody pays any attention to Joe, as Obama surely knows.

He expressed pride in his opposition to earmarks, cleverly steering around his swallowing of 8,500 of them in a spending bill left over from last year. The stimulus was "free of earmarks," he said, "and I want to pass a budget next year" without them. The 2008 bill went unmentioned.

Obama specializes in knocking down straw men. "I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves," he said, implying that's the view of Republicans. It's the view of almost no one.

Candidates don't routinely offer budgets, at least not ones as detailed as the official White House spending plan unveiled by Obama last week. His $3.6 trillion budget, Obama said, provides "an honest accounting" and tells "the whole truth .  .  . about what costs are being racked up." So far, so good.

The most striking thing about Obama's budget is its new definition of "savings" and its use of dubious assumptions. In normal parlance, savings are the opposite of spending. Savings are what you get when you cut spending. Not to Obama, however. He claims $2 trillion in savings in his 10-year budget blueprint, but they mostly are tax increases or money collected from companies in Obama's cap-and-trade program to curb carbon pollution. Actual cuts are microscopic.