President Barack Obama used his second inaugural address Monday to offer an aggressive, unapologetic defense of activist government and to call for a new spirit of unity even as he seeks to move the country even further left.
But in celebrating the power of the government to lead the nation forward, Obama breezed past the costs of an ever-growing public sector and made only passing mention of the country’s most urgent problem as he took the oath to lead it: debt.
The United States is now $16.4 trillion in debt. We’ve accumulated more than a third of that total since Obama’s first inaugural four years ago, an additional $20,000-plus per citizen during the Obama presidency. Even using White House projections, we’ll have more than $21 trillion by the time his second term ends.
Obama doesn’t care.
“Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time,” he said, “but it does require us to act in our time.” And yet the president spoke as if those debates had been settled – and settled in favor of those who believe that progress requires “collective action” over individual initiative and those who believe in a substantially greater role for the state over those who believe in limited government.
Our debt is not such an abstraction. And “progress,” particularly the way this president defines it, is costly.
Even as the president called for unity, Obama returned to politics, using his speech to answer a charge often leveled by Paul Ryan, that the United States is turning into a nation of “makers and takers.” No one has been a stronger proponent of structural reforms to the country’s entitlement programs than Ryan and Obama defended these programs against perceived attacks. “The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things to not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” (Ryan, not incidentally, was booed by those gathered for the ceremony when he emerged from the Capitol.)
This political shot at his vanquished opponent was notable, but more remarkable was the scant attention Obama devoted to the costs of these “commitments.” That short passage was one of just two brief mentions of our coming debt crisis. This was the other: “We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that American must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.”
And that’s it. What hard choices? He doesn’t tell us. And how do we control health care costs? Not with structural reforms to Medicare, but judging from his signature domestic policy accomplishment, greater involvement of the state.
Strikingly, Obama’s allusions to the nation’s asphyxiating debt and the entitlement programs driving it accounted for just 94 words of the 2,142 he spoke in his second inaugural – less than five percent of the speech. (Obama’s section on climate change was twice as long.) Both times the president spoke of entitlements and deficits, Obama defended the programs but gave no hint at the steps he would take to address the rising debt.
The president’s defenders explain that an inaugural isn’t the place for specific policy proposals. Those will come in his State of the Union, they promise.
Perhaps, though there is little reason to believe Obama will provide details on deficit reduction beyond new ways to raise taxes on the wealthy. And other presidents have offered specific proposals in their inaugural addresses. Ronald Reagan used his second inaugural to call for a freeze in federal spending and balanced budget. Reagan lamented “almost unbroken 50 years of deficit spending” which brought the nation to “a turning point, a moment for hard decisions…If not us, who? And if not now, when?”
Reagan fell short of those objectives. But at least he acknowledged the growing threat presented by rising debt. When Reagan spoke those words, the gross federal debt was $1.8 trillion – some 43 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Today, our $16.4 trillion in debt is nearly 105 percent of our GDP.
The lack of attention to the debt from Obama was not an oversight. It’s simply not a priority. Obama promised to cut the deficit in half during his first term. He hasn't even pretended to do so. When the commission he appointed to look at debt and deficits reported its findings, he ignored them. And when the president’s top adviser, David Axelrod, was asked last summer about Obama’s second term priorities, he listed six separate issues – the economy, education, investment in research/manufacturing, trade, energy, and immigration. He did not mention debt or deficits.
For Obama, five of those six priorities will mean more spending, bigger government. How will we pay for them? We’re left to wonder.
When historians look back at Obama’s second inaugural, they will reread an impassioned defense of activist government and a plea for more of it. But I suspect they will also look at this address as both a reminder of Obama’s failure to address the debt in his first term and a harbinger of his unwillingness to pay for the entitlement state in his second.