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Morning Jay: Obama's Sophistry on the Budget Deficit

6:00 AM, Apr 27, 2011 • By JAY COST
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In Obama’s speech on the budget deficit earlier this month, the president went out of his way to praise the free market, but balanced it against the need for collective action sponsored by the government:           

From our first days as a nation, we have put our faith in free markets and free enterprise as the engine of America's wealth and prosperity. More than citizens of any other country, we are rugged individualists, a self-reliant people with a healthy skepticism of too much government.

But there has always been another thread running throughout our history - a belief that we are all connected; and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation. We believe, in the words of our first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, that through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves. And so we've built a strong military to keep us secure, and public schools and universities to educate our citizens. We've laid down railroads and highways to facilitate travel and commerce. We've supported the work of scientists and researchers whose discoveries have saved lives, unleashed repeated technological revolutions, and led to countless new jobs and entire industries. Each of us has benefitted from these investments, and we are a more prosperous country as a result.

This turned out to be a classic rhetorical move from the president. Obama regularly praises some value that is expounded mostly by conservatives, then turns around to qualify or balance it with a point made by the left (or vice versa). This is designed to create the impression that he is in the political center, or better yet at the final stage of a dialectical process: conservatism the thesis, liberalism the antithesis, Obama the synthesis.

However, this rhetorical move is inevitably a non sequitur, and always promulgated for the same, political purpose. In the case of the deficit, and what to do about it, the president’s “faith” in the free market is completely abstract and is unrelated to the real world of political debate. Sure, he’s pro-free market in the sense that he prefers it to socialism or communism, but that has nothing to do with the contemporary political divide. Most everybody in the mainstream political discourse agrees that free markets – of some sort – are good. The country is not debating whether to become a communist country. Instead, it is debating how much the government should involve itself in the free market.

Obama knows this, of course, and his speech is intended to confuse the issue, to make it seem like his policy proposals are not as liberal as they actually are. He starts out at 30,000 feet, above the political fray, to explain and praise our shared American values, some emphasized by conservatives and others by liberals, then he quietly zooms down to the ground level to stake out a position on the left hand side of the divide, arguing speciously that this final spot is consistent with where he started out. His hope is that you will not notice the transition, and thus assume that his decidedly left wing position is in fact the one that synthesizes liberalism and conservatism.

This is why he is constantly attacking straw men and bemoaning false choices. This shift from abstract philosophy to liberal politics is his signature rhetorical maneuver, and it requires the assumption that the actual political divide is inherently confused, as well as the idea that everybody who doesn’t find his position acceptable (inevitably, they are all on the right) is either radical or acting in poor faith.

And so it is that the president who praises “rugged individualism” and proposes an unprecedented expansion in the role of government in American life turns out to be the same person! Juxtapose President Obama's soaring rhetoric about free markets with the following chart, which graphs historical levels of spending and taxation against the president's FY 2012 Budget.

This explains why the budget deficit debate is not only about the budget deficit. The spending and revenue projections in Obama’s budget simply do not work. Either the spending number will have to come down or the revenue number will have to go up – otherwise the deficit that his numbers produce would eat us alive. And so this debate is actually one about how big we want our government to be: should it continue to pull in an average of 18 percent of GDP in revenue and put out an average of 21 percent in expenditures, or should those numbers both be moved upwards? Given his budget proposal and the amendments to it he made in the speech he delivered earlier this month – which dealt mostly with tax increases plus tweaks to military spending and his Medicare panel – we know which side of the divide that Obama falls on. He wants those numbers shifted upwards, by a lot.

We know this despite the president’s best efforts to confuse and obfuscate his position. He wants us to think that the outlays versus revenue debate is a false one; that the positions on the left and right are really just steps in a dialectical process that ultimately ends with Obama himself. This, however, is nonsense. The president has taken an ideological stand on this issue, and it is the liberal stand.

Moving forward, watch for Obama to continue to proffer the notion that his proposal is somehow centrist, and in keeping with the oldest traditions of American policy. That’s what he has done since he first emerged on the scene in 2004 (his red state/blue state speech at the 2004 DNC was basically a blueprint of this enduring rhetorical approach), and that’s what he did a few weeks ago in this speech. Obama does not want to have a debate about the budget deficit, at least not as it relates to the size and intrusiveness of the federal government. And so he’ll travel from one end of the country to the other claiming that his opponents are just a bunch of political hacks and/or extremists, and assuring us that he’s the only one who understands just exactly what the truly American position actually is. Because that’s what he always does. But it’s all a bunch of flim flammery, intended to mask the reality that he wants a massive increase in the size of government, and that he’s quite far from the political center on this issue.

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