In an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman, President Barack Obama suggested that most of the country’s debt was accumulated under George W. Bush, pretended that he has offered a solution to these problems, said that he does not know the total U.S. national debt, and claimed that the debt is not a short-term concern for the country.
It was one of the most dishonest performances from this president in recent memory, and yet it has generated virtually no attention from a mainstream media.
The conversation started when Letterman told the president that he’d watched the Republican National Convention and was taken by the debt clock spinning the convention hall.
Letterman: Here’s what I found troubling and I want you to help me through this. They had the clock – the debt countdown clock. And I mean this thing is going like crazy. And it’s several trillion dollars. Now, what is that?
Obama: Well, here’s what happened. We had a surplus when Bill Clinton was president.
Letterman: That means extra money.
Obama: Extra money. That was projected to continue to be a surplus. We decided to launch two wars on a credit card. We cut taxes twice without finding offsetting costs for it – or ways to pay for it. A prescription drug plan – and then we had a massive recession. And so when I walked into office we had a trillion dollar deficit, debt had mounted, and then we had to take a bunch of emergency measures – that cost money. Saving the auto industry, making sure that the financial system got back on track.
This is highly misleading. Letterman asked about the debt clock and Obama responded by talking about annual deficits. The effect, of course, is to allow viewers to conclude that all of the debt on the debt clock was accrued after Clinton – and because of the policies of George W. Bush. Clinton certainly deserves some credit for the surpluses, but the debt when Clinton left office was $5.7 trillion. It’s worth noting that Obama supported one of those two wars, has extended many of those tax cuts, and has proposed to provide health care well beyond the costly prescription drug plan – all without finding ways to pay for it.
So now, what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to pare down that deficit, get that debt under control. The only way we’ve ever been able to do that is when you do it in a balanced way. So you cut out spending you don’t need – there are programs that don’t work. And you know I tell my Democratic friends all the time, if you’re going to be in favor of helping the American people, you can’t just assume that every government program is working the way it should. It can work better. But what is also true, is that we’re going to need to ask folks like you and me to do a little bit more. And if you and I are paying the same tax rates under Bill Clinton then that helps to close the deficit. And if we do those two things then we can manage very effectively and get our books in order.
There are several problems with this passage. Which programs “don’t work”? And given that he’s been president for nearly four years, why haven’t they been eliminated? The budget presented by the president in 2012 never balances – it never comes close. After his budget proposal was roundly criticized as unserious last winter, Obama took another shot with a big economic speech in June. It didn’t work.
Dana Milbank, the acerbic liberal columnist for the Washington Post, wrote on June 14, 2012, under the headline: “Skip the falsehoods, Mr. President, and give us a plan.” Milbank called Obama’s do-over speech “a falsehood wrapped in a fallacy. The falsehood is that he has been serious about cutting government spending. The fallacy is that this election will be some sort of referendum that will break the logjam in Washington.” Obama, Milbank continued, “has made no serious proposal to fix the runaway entitlement programs that threaten to swamp the government’s finances.” Milbank criticized the plans offered by Republicans but acknowledged that they have at least presented one. “Nothing in Obama’s speech came close to a proposal to fix the debt problem.”