The Magazine

Spender in Chief

Mar 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 26 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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What the White House didn’t count on, suffused as it was with postelection hubris, was that the public might be skeptical of its claims of sequester chaos. In his press conference with first responders on February 19, Obama described something close to a Hobbesian state of nature if discretionary spending were cut 5.3 percent. Prosecutors, he claimed, would have to “let criminals go.” Others claimed that teachers would be fired, seniors would go hungry, children would go unvaccinated. Those claims were proven to be exaggerated or simply untrue. 

This was too much even for the Obama-friendly press corps, who recognized that the president’s history on the sequester had been an exercise in bad faith. Obama, after all, (1) proposed the sequester, (2) threatened to veto any attempt to avoid it, (3) ignored warnings about its consequences for months, (4) promised it wouldn’t happen, (5) pledged to pay legal fees of federal employees if it did, (6) complained he had too little flexibility, (7) rejected Republican efforts to give him more flexibility, and then, finally, (8) predicted calamity once the cuts he’d championed went through. 

The White House recognizes that the fight over the sequester is about much more than the immediate reduction in the growth of federal spending. In some respects, it’s about the central rationale of the Obama presidency—that government is a force for good in the lives of Americans, not just necessary but constructive and even benevolent. Think back to the Obama campaign’s “Julia,” a fictional single woman who was aided by a caring and compassionate government at every stage of her life. The president’s argument over the past two months is that the government is so important it cannot be trimmed even a little. On the contrary, from universal pre-K to more green energy to new medical research, it ought to be doing things tomorrow that it’s not doing today. 

So it’s fair to ask: Why should Republicans trust a man whose second Inaugural Address was a clarion call to greater government activism, whose State of the Union the New York Times described as a case for “closing out the politics of austerity,” who has previously demonstrated bad faith by fighting even modest reductions in spending growth, and whose second-term strategy so far has depended on casting Republicans as villains?

Republicans ought to proceed with caution. 


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