The Magazine

Dissembler in Chief

Jul 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 42 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
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‘I’m the president of the United States, and I want to make sure that I am not engaging in scare tactics. And I’ve tried to be responsible and somewhat restrained so that folks don’t get spooked.” So said President Obama at his June 29 debt ceiling press conference. Two weeks later, CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley asked Obama whether he can “tell the folks at home that, no matter what happens, the Social Security checks are gonna go out on August 3?” President Obama replied that whether it was Social Security checks, veterans’ checks, or disability checks, “I cannot guarantee that those checks go out on August 3 if we haven’t resolved this issue, because there may simply not be the money in the coffers to do it.”

Obama Photo

These statements are representative of Obama’s contradictions, in word and deed, over the course of the entire deficit debate. Gelatinous is an apt description (to paraphrase Speaker John Boehner) of the president’s rhetoric, for Obama has been slippery and irresolute—the opposite of the responsibility and restraint he touts.

To be responsible, a leader should express ideas to the American people in clear and informative language. Yet the deficit debate has been marked by Obama’s fondness for referring to “revenues” (taxes), “investments” (spending), the need to “reduce spending in the tax code” (increase taxes), and the importance of “further improving Medicare” (cutting Medicare) by further empowering the Independent Payment Advisory Board, whose cuts—at least under current law—would go to fund Obamacare, not cut the deficit.

He has misled people and incited envy by repeatedly suggesting that wealthier Americans don’t pay their fair share of taxes. Yet Congressional Budget Office (CBO) figures show that if the citizenry is divided into quintiles by income, the top two quintiles pay 99 percent of all federal income taxes, and the top 1 percent pays 40 percent. Nor is this merely reflective of disparities in income: The top two quintiles make three times as much money as the bottom three quintiles but pay 75 times as much in income taxes.

And take Obama’s statement about not having the money for Social Security, veterans’ checks, or disability: The federal government takes in roughly $180 billion every month. (It also borrows $135 billion a month.) Social Security payments are about $60 billion a month, payments to all military personnel (veterans and otherwise) are about $12 billion, and payments to disabled veterans are about $6 billion. That totals about $78 billion. To say that “there may simply not be the money in the coffers” to pay for these items is plainly false. One might even call it “engaging in scare tactics.”

Perhaps most grating of all are his repeated references to “a balanced approach” and his petulant insistence that Congress “make a deal.” In a debt ceiling press conference during which he chided Congress for “procrastinating,” Obama said, “This is a matter of Congress going ahead and biting the bullet and making some tough decisions. .  .  . We’ve identified what spending cuts are possible. We’ve identified what defense cuts are possible. We’ve identified what health care cuts are possible.” Then, in a comment that some might not characterize as “restrained,” he added, “You know, Malia and Sasha generally finish their homework a day ahead of time. Malia is 13; Sasha is 10.”

Yet Obama hasn’t followed his daughters’ fine example. He has yet to submit a single debt ceiling proposal to Congress for a vote. Likewise, he has yet to submit a budget to Congress that would cut federal spending by so much as $1. He did submit a budget (defeated in the Senate 97 to 0) earlier this year that he described as reducing deficits by “roughly $1 trillion.” But the CBO scored it and said it would increase deficits by $2.8 trillion—and that’s even compared to current law, which would already lead to $6.7 trillion in new deficits. 

Meanwhile, in his July 15 press conference, Obama said of the Republicans, “If they show me a serious plan I’m ready to move.” But House Republicans passed a serious budget three months ago that would cut deficits by $1.6 trillion, even before its proposed Medicare reforms (for those under 55) would go into effect. Yet Obama hasn’t moved. He has shown no willingness to tackle runaway entitlement spending. To the contrary, Obamacare dramatically accelerates it—even though, according to his own budget, mandatory spending alone will surpass total federal revenues this year.

As for Obama’s “balanced approach,” according to White House figures, the highest percentage of the gross domestic product that Americans have ever paid in taxes is 20.9 percent, at the height of World War II. Obama’s budget calls for spending an average of 24 percent over ten years—a tally that, pre-Obama, we last hit during that same war. So Obama’s idea of a “balanced approach” involves spending at the highest rate since World War II and taxing at the highest rate in American history. Meanwhile, Obama wants a debt ceiling increase of at least $2.4 trillion, the staggering amount of money that we’d need to borrow to get us through his reelection bid. 

In light of all this, it’s no wonder that House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan received a standing ovation from his fellow Republicans last month at the White House when he told Obama, “Mr. President, the demagoguery only stops if the leaders stop it,” adding, “Leadership should come from the top.” Ryan’s words tapped into an increasing feeling of frustration among the American people—the frustration that comes when the president of the United States speaks to them as “folks” prone to being spooked rather than as responsible citizens of a democratic—if increasingly insolvent—republic.

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