President Barack Obama may have meant it when he said that he hastily called a news conference this week to give Jay Carney, his new press secretary, “one more taste of freedom” from the press. (Since replacing Robert Gibbs, early this week, Carney had not as of yet had to take reporters’ questions from the podium.) It has, after all, been through Obama’s unscripted moments that we have come to know what is really thinking.
How best to bring the spiraling debt and accompanying deficit under control was clearly not on the president’s mind. In his hour-long exchange with the press, he offered nothing more than the paltry cuts in non-discretionary, non-defense spending and fee increases he proposed in the budget he unveiled the day before. Obama admitted that his budgetary proposals do nothing to contain the growing costs of entitlements, such as Social Security and Medicare, which are projected to rise astronomically in the coming years. [Take the U.S. News poll: Is Obama right on entitlements?]
His performance this week was not one that will go down in the annals of presidential leadership. Nor did it represent a clear break with how things have conventionally been done in Washington, one of the themes of Obama’s 2008 campaign, and against which voters, who actually believed he would keep it, are sure to judge his performance in 2012. Republicans hit it on the head when they say that he “punted.” (Did he even bother to read the Reagan biography his aides told us he took on vacation with him at the end of the year?) As a venture into partisan politics as usual with more than a pinch of cynicism thrown in, Obama’s performance gets an “A+.”
First, by challenging the Republicans to put up their own plan if they don’t like his, Obama thinks he may have lured them into a trap. The instant any of them propose significant cuts in programs Democrats see as sacred, the public will be bombarded with political ads accusing the GOP of throwing grandma out into the snow. There are, after all, reasons why Social Security (and soon, thereafter, Medicare) became third rails. FDR (and subsequently LBJ) financed the two programs through a payroll tax, rather than through income or other taxes, so that workers would feel that they had a stake in the program’s survival. Roosevelt even said he designed the Social Security system in such a way that “no damned politician” would ever seek to tamper with it. (Already, MSNBC, the Democratic Party’s voice in the media, is broadcasting how much raising eligibility requirements by a single year would cost an individual in federal payments.) [Read more stories about the deficit and national debt.]
All this, of course, means that if any “damned politician” is to take on entitlements, a Democrat would have to take the lead, just as it took a committed anticommunist Republican like Richard Nixon to open a dialogue with communist China. On this one, at least, Obama has shown that he is not prepared to be that kind of Democrat. As in the case of his handling of the healthcare issue and the war he waged against business last year, once again he is prepared to be the president of, by, and, for his base.
Second, Obama knows that, as long as the Democrats control the Senate, few of the cuts he has proposed in non-military discretionary spending are going to make their way into the final budget. He only needs a single Democrat to say “no” to the proposals he has made to cut heating subsidies for the elderly and the poor, eliminate Pell grants for summer study, and all the rest. He also knows that his friend, Rahm Emanuel, who the president suggested does not need his help, as the presumptive new mayor of Chicago, together with his fellow mayors, will lobby heavily for retention of all the community action grants to which the president professes so much affection. [See a slide show on 10 GOP frontrunners for 2012.]
Finally, Obama, through the lackadaisical approach he has taken toward the deficit, revealed that he and his party see it only as an issue of importance when Republicans are in control. How they howled about “mortgaging our children’s future” when Reagan, whom Obama professes to admire, was in the White House. Under the Gipper, the deficit peaked at the then historic high of 6 percent of GDP (the highest since the heights of World War II, when it surpassed 100 percent for three years). Under Reagan, the debt surpassed 52 percent of GDP. That, Democrats said, was enough to cause the heavens to fall. Yet, with the deficit expected to surpass 10 percent of GDP in the current fiscal year, and the debt standing at 93 percent of GDP, Obama sees no sense of urgency. His failure to demonstrate urgency about anything has become a hallmark of his presidency.
It is hard to think of anything to which Barack Obama has brought a sense of urgency since he became president. The new team he has brought in to help him seems unlikely to prod him on. “My experience over the last 30 years is that when you put a proposal out there, before you put a proposal out there, before you’ve laid the foundation for a bipartisan discussion, it actually doesn’t move the process forward,” said Obama’s new budget director, Jacob Lew, in office a few weeks longer than Carney. [See a slide show of 10 Democrats targeted for defeat in 2012.]
One might ask, even granting the president a two week grace period for time spent on Egypt, what he and his administration have been doing in the time that has elapsed since Obama was said to have “pulled a Bill Clinton” last December. That was, readers will recall, when he and the GOP reached a tentative accord on tax and budgetary matters. Wasn’t that supposed to have presaged a new “era of good feelings?’” Obama did Jay Carney no favors when he chose to speak for himself.