Last week the president gave a speech on the deficit, rightly trying to convince Americans that it is now beyond unsustainable. Yet his theme was that the Republicans’ attempts to reduce it were cold-hearted, endangering the most vulnerable among us, such as those with Down’s Syndrome, while protecting the proverbial “rich” from commensurate sacrifice. Let us, then, look at Obama, and the context of his speech, as a doctor might a patient.
Symptoms of the Illness
a) Obama just introduced a $3.5 trillion dollar budget with a $1.6 annual deficit — both record numbers. (If worried about debt, why then run up more record debt, if not by design to ensure higher taxes and larger deficit-run government?)
b) Obama ignored so far all the recommendations of his own blue-chip debt committee. (Why appoint an honorific committee that is to be humiliated?)
c) Obama demonized his opponents in precisely the manner that he had earlier warned against, both in his calls for a new civility following the Giffords shooting, and in promising not to demagogue cuts to entitlements in cheap partisan fashion. (Does his entire audience suffer from amnesia?)
d) Obama wants now to raise taxes on the “rich,” though right after the elections he had agreed that these hikes were a bad idea in such uncertain times. (An unwise idea in December is a needed one in April?)
e) Obama warns against shutting down the government in protest of unsustainable debt, though that is precisely what he voted for as a senator in 2006, when the deficit was about 1/5 of what it is now. (A Senator Obama would have been a President Obama’s worst nightmare?)
f) Obama said that neither he nor Warren Buffett needed another tax cut, although Buffett is the second richest man in America, who pays less a percentage of his income than most of those who make above the dreaded $250,000 — and Barack Obama is the country’s most privileged American who pays for virtually none of his own expenses. (The average optometrist really earns like Buffett and has no expenses like Obama?)
g) Obama still talks about ObamaCare, but has given 1,000 exemptions from it, often to those interests who were most for it. (If he exempted the entire state of Maine, could he just do the same for the other 49 and call it a victory?)
Diagnosis of the Malady
a) An erratic, unengaged president is bored with the work part of the job, enjoying far more the golf, attention, influence, and perks (despite not getting a “cool” phone system with a drop-down screen in the Oval Office), and so he simply sleepwalks through his speeches, oblivious to the contradictions he presents. (Who cares if his Libyan misadventure contradicts almost everything he said from 2002-10, since he was already on to Rio and praising Brazil for drilling off-shore in a manner we never would. Life is short, but the job cool.) OR
b) The president is cynical and says whatever he wishes without worry of consequences, because based on the past abyss between laurels and achievement (Harvard Law Review, offer of Chicago Law School tenure, record in the Senate, Nobel Prize, etc.), he feels exempt from scrutiny and audit. Indeed, he expects that he can always “hope and change” or “millions of green jobs” his way out of any rare, nit-picking journalistic follow-up. (A journalist will always declare him a “god” even if speech A nullifies speech B a day later). OR
c) The president says, like most, what he must to be elected and now reelected; Guantanamo, renditions, Iraq, tribunals, Predators, preventative detention, public campaign financing, revolving door politics, earmarks, lobbyists, etc. — these are all just “constructs” without real absolute truth. They are bad or good, depending on the political calculus at any given time — a consideration that changes sometimes hourly. So Obama seems to have discovered that what he said to get elected, or even said two weeks ago, he need not say today again or tomorrow. Polls change, so do talking points. (He also knows that 50% of the citizenry receive some sort of government money; almost 50% pay no income tax; and in February more money was redistributed than collected by the Treasury. Therefore most Americans will stick by him whatever he says — as long as he keeps the money flowing.) OR
d) The president is Machiavellian and, amid his apparent confusion and misdirection, has actually quite adroitly moved the country far to the left since 2009. While his growing number of critics bemoan his inconsistency, disingenuousness, ill-preparedness, contradictions, and lack of persistence, Obama looks only to the fact that the nation in the last 30 months has come to look more like his vision than that of his opponents. (The Left may groan, but they grasp that Obama’s youth, mixed ancestry, charisma, and untraditional candidacy are rare gifts that can advance a once unpopular agenda in a way a McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, or Kerry never could.)
None of this symptomology is mutually exclusive, and, in fact, these indications are more likely complementary. Indeed, the president’s speech is a good harbinger of the campaign to come. Contradictions mean nothing. Quite blatant reversals are irrelevant. For Obama to win, our patient simply counts on three therapies in 2012.
1) All recessions at some point get a little better. The world is now in a so-so recovery. We have printed $5 trillion since Obama was inaugurated. For a short period, say until the end of 2012, such “stimulus” will have a stimulatory, inflationary effect. An upswing comes now; the perfect storm of stagflationary hyper-high-prices, chronic unemployment above 8%, and spiraling interest rates may not take full effect until after the election.
2) The deficit is indeed unsustainable, and premise #1 is, in fact, endangered by it. So the Republicans will have to deal with it, and thus must bear the charge that they cut Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid, while fighting for the Bush “tax cuts.” If the Republicans want to “balance the budgets on the backs of the poor,” then Obama has no choice but to go to the barricades and stop that Dickensian ruthlessness. So propose a $1.6 deficit, ignore the debt commission, and let the Republicans play Scrooge to his Bob Cratchit.
3) The electorate is not as it was when it finally sickened of Jimmy Carter in August 1980. Far more are on public assistance, unemployment, Social Security, food stamps, etc., or work for thousands of new state and federal bureaus. There are millions more illegal aliens that have become citizens since the late 1970s. And the voting rolls have expanded exponentially among “nontraditional” voters. Thus, the political calculus about which pundits and talking-heads debate is not always what half the electorate worries about. The national debt, the annual deficit, the problems with ObamaCare, the tax code — all that matters very little. The key question for millions of voters in 2012 will be simply who ensures that my check arrives unchanged or augmented, and who either stops or reduces it.
Patient Obama presents us with multifaceted, but now chronic and well-recognized symptoms. They reflect a variety of maladies that nevertheless form an identifiable syndrome. There is no real therapy to be recommended since the illness will have to run its course, with a prognosis that remains uncertain until it resolves one way or another in about two years — or in late 2012.