Paul Ryan, architect of the Republican budget for 2012, sat in the front row at George Washington University as President Obama delivered his thoughts on the deficit, debt, and Ryan’s spending plan. The White House had seated him there, directly in front of the president.
Obama spoke for 43 minutes. As he turned from side to side, from one teleprompter to the other, he never made eye contact with Ryan. Nor did he speak to Ryan before or after his speech.
Yet the president devoted a significant chunk of his address to denouncing Ryan’s budget as unserious and close to being un-American. It “would lead to a fundamentally different America . . . than what we’ve known throughout our history,” Obama said. Not only that, but Ryan would let crumbling roads and collapsed bridges go unfixed and autistic and disabled kids would have “to fend for themselves.”
Politics shouldn’t consist of happy talk. But this was vicious and untrue. It was like forcing a parent to watch his child get tortured. Obama later played down his criticism. “It was not so much a critique,” he told George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, as “it was a description of what they’ve proposed.” True, it wasn’t a critique. It was a smear.
Following the speech, an aide to Ryan contacted the budget office at the White House. The president had been vague about how he’d achieve his goals for cutting spending and reducing debt. So the Ryan staffer asked for specifics. Where did the numbers come from? What were the assumptions? What was the spending baseline? Could the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) calculate the cost of Obama’s plan?
He got no answers. The Ryan aide was referred to the president’s budget, released in February, a budget the speech seemed to supersede. For more information, he was told to contact the White House press office, which pointed him to a “fact sheet.” It was a press release with few facts.
Where does this leave the struggle to curb spending, reform entitlements, and avert a fiscal crisis? Prospects for a grand compromise between Obama and Republicans, starting with the 2012 budget, have worsened. Obama has lurched to the left, skipping over the middle. Assuming he sticks to the line he took in his speech, coming together on a budget may be impossible.
Obama refuses to lead. He’s uncomfortable with active presidential leadership, either at home or abroad. He’s assigned Vice President Biden to meet with a bipartisan group of 16 congressional leaders to work out an agreement. Negotiations are to begin in early May when Congress returns from a two-week recess.
Republicans are understandably leery. The president established his own debt commission headed by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson and ignored its recommendations. Now a Biden Commission? Repub-licans will probably have to join. If they shun Biden, they’ll be pilloried by Democrats and the media.
Another commission would be unnecessary had Obama revised his budget along the lines of his speech and sent it to Congress. Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee have urged Obama to do so “in a form that can be reviewed and analyzed by members of Congress and estimated by the Congressional Budget Office.”
Obama, instead, has chosen to muddy the situation. The goals in his speech were put in a 12-year time frame, not the normal 10 years. Ryan’s Republican budget covers 10 years and got a full CBO frisk. Obama’s February budget claimed savings of $1 trillion, but CBO said it would increase the deficit by $2.3 trillion. A 12-year spending plan may confound CBO’s ability to assess it. In fact, that’s likely the intention behind it.
“Why don’t we just do our jobs?” Ryan asked at a forum of the economic study group e21. “These are the times where you need leaders to step up and lead, not follow. These are times where, on the biggest ideas of our day, we should not be delegating decisions to other people. . . . Who knows what this Biden Commission will do.”
While thrilling liberal Democrats, Obama’s speech tightened Republican unity. House speaker John Boehner had trouble rallying Republicans to vote for the bipartisan budget deal he negotiated for the final months of fiscal year 2011. Fifty-nine Republicans voted no, amid media rumbles about dissatisfaction with his leadership.
The success of the Ryan budget gave a boost to Boehner. It sailed through, 235-193, with 4 Republican dissenters. “If the president won’t lead, we will,” Boehner said. On the debt limit, he said, “let me be clear. There will be no debt limit increase unless it is accompanied by meaningful spending cuts and budget reforms.”
Ryan likes to remind folks of Obama’s visit in January 2010 to the House Republican retreat in Baltimore. The president was wearing his bipartisan suit as he spoke to Ryan from the podium. Ryan was in the audience, with his wife and kids.
“We’re not going to be able to do anything about any of these entitlements if what we do is characterize whatever proposals are put out there as, ‘Well, you know, that’s the other party being irresponsible. The other party is trying to hurt our senior citizens.”
That Obama—a fake one, it turns out—would have disagreed with Ryan on entitlements without bludgeoning him. No more. Now he opposes Ryan’s reform of Medicare because it “leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry, with a shrinking benefit to pay for rising costs.” And he’s unleashed House Democrats. Nancy Pelosi said Ryan would “abolish” Medicare. Ed Markey of Massachusetts said GOP stands for “get old people.” John Garamendi said Republicans would cause “the death of Medicare” and throw “senior citizens to the sharks.”
Ryan refers to the president as “disinvolved.” And though Obama is hiding behind Biden, there will be an Obama-Ryan debate, only indirect and from a distance. It’s already on. Ryan released his budget. Obama’s speech was his response. Ryan criticized the speech, then Obama took potshots at Ryan.
They agree, as Obama told Stephanopoulos, that we “are at a fork in the road here.” Ryan said it better in his speech on the House floor before the budget vote. “This is our generation’s defining moment,” he said. “We must not leave this nation in decline. We must not be the Congress that failed to fulfill the American legacy of leaving a better nation to our children.”
Ryan would accept an invitation for a one-on-one talk with Obama. “Of course I would,” he told me. He’s not holding his breath. “I don’t think that’s how it works with the White House,” he says. “I just don’t think they do that.” Not face-to-face anyway, with eye contact and honest discussion.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.