Obama Cedes the High Ground

I’m with Joe Biden on this one. Budget speeches make me fall asleep, too. Whether I was discussing them on the radio or debating them on the floor of Congress, the end result was always the same -- I was bored to tears. I feel about budget talks the way Will Rogers did about rope tricks when he said, “There’s no such thing as a good one.”

There are probably two reasons most of us feel like dozing off during a budget battle. First, there is nothing in the present debate between Democrats and Republicans that we have not heard many, many times before. Substitute names and numbers, and the current confrontation between President Obama and Speaker Boehner could be a replay of Clinton and Gingrich or George H.W. Bush and George Mitchell or Reagan and Tip O’Neill. Yes, the deficits are now structural and not cyclical and the long-term consequences of doing nothing are more dire but it is still the same circus in a different tent. Higher taxes vs. deeper spending cuts, creating wealth vs. redistributing it, rich vs. poor … zzzzzzz.

The second reason is that unlike a good political dust-up over a war or a particularly divisive social issue, fiscal fights are almost always devoid of any passion or pageantry whatsoever. Military generals and attorneys general we pay attention to. Comptroller generals? Zzzzzz. The two notable exceptions to this rule are Ronald Reagan and the tea party activists who framed their budget issues as a struggle between individual liberty and big government tyranny. So you either need an extremely gifted messenger or an extremely agitated crowd to win your arguments, because government’s true staying power is not just that it’s so big. It is also that it is so mind-numbingly boring. Unless you are a committed partisan or feeding your family on a federal paycheck, after a while you tune out and the game defaults to the defenders of the status quo.

This is why I cannot join the growing chorus of conservative pundits and right-minded talk show hosts who were outraged by President Obama’s budget address. I loved it.

Knowing that a sober, adult analysis of revenues as a percentage of GDP would induce a coast to coast coma, the commander in chief resorted to what he does best: shrill personal and partisan attacks. Dude threw down. Instead of rebutting Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposals, the president reloaded and then strafed Republicans randomly with a barrage of ammo left behind by every Democrat since FDR. The GOP budget, he ranted, sends a clear message to our children, our seniors, and our poor. If you are in the dawn of life, the twilight of life, or the shadow of life, it’s lights out. Republicans only care about virgins and venture capitalists.

Paul Ryan was actually hurt by the president’s remarks. He expected better. He somehow believed he and the GOP leadership were now players in the budget game and not tackling dummies. What he and Speaker Boehner don’t seem to realize yet is what a gift the Republicans in Congress have been given. With his speech at GWU which was long on invective and short on inspiration, the president essentially ceded all the high ground on fiscal matters to the opposition. He announced he does not want a solution to America’s deficit and debt crisis. He’d rather have an issue for his re-election campaign.