I never felt so simpatico with Joe Biden as I did after President Obama’s Great Deficit Speech. Ol’ lunch-bucket Joe seemed to doze off during the president’s oration. Perhaps he only appeared to be snoozing. But I can report that your faithful correspondent, despite the best intentions, did actually nod off a few times in the course of the address herself.
The first time I found my eyelids drooping was around paragraph four, when the president rhapsodized about the greatness of government: “We’ve laid down railroads and highways to facilitate travel and commerce. We’ve supported the work of scientists and researchers whose discoveries have saved lives, unleashed repeated technological revolutions, and led to countless new jobs and entire industries. Each of us has benefited from these investments, and we are a more prosperous country as a result.”
Who would not, at this point, yawn and grumble, “I’ve seen this movie before”? President Obama never tires of invoking the interstate-highway system as the model of government activism (though we do tire of hearing about it). He’s mentioned it in all three of his State of the Union addresses; when proclaiming the glories of the stimulus bill (“We will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s”); and in defense of his “investment” in high-speed rail.
It’s a truism that, as the president said, some tasks can be performed only by government (national defense, courts of law, etc.). But Obama’s frequent invocation of government’s greatest hits, along with his tendency to attribute economic growth to government action, is part of his utterly conventional, myopic, Great Society–liberal worldview. Snore.
What startled me out of my slumber was this nugget in paragraph 11: “America’s finances were in great shape by the year 2000. We went from deficit to surplus. America was actually on track to becoming completely debt-free, and we were prepared for the retirement of the Baby Boomers. But after Democrats and Republicans committed to fiscal discipline during the 1990s, we lost our way in the decade that followed.”
This “It all started with George W. Bush” trope is more than tiresome — it’s shallow, pandering, and dishonest. The entitlement crisis was the most predictable (and predicted) fiscal train wreck in history. The math about entitlement spending has been evident for decades. In 1994, to cite just one warning that predated the Bush bogeyman presidency, President Clinton’s bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform reported that Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and civilian and military pensions would exceed total federal revenues by 2030. We know today that things are worse. The American Enterprise Institute’s Andrew Biggs reminds us that “the joke among entitlement analysts is that the government will eventually turn into a pension plan with an army.” Or maybe without an army . . .
Remember, the pre-speech buzz suggested that President Obama was going to debut a new seriousness about America’s looming debt. We were led to expect, if not a full embrace of entitlement reform, at least an honest grapple with the scope of the problem. Instead, he stooped to full “Mediscare” scurrilousness. Under the Republican plan, Obama warned darkly, the elderly would have their Medicare withdrawn, to be replaced with “a voucher.” Kids with autism and other debilitating diseases would be told “to fend for themselves.” Obama basically accused Republicans of sponsoring death panels. And “50 million Americans would have to lose their health care in order for us to reduce the deficit.”
The president didn’t identify those 50 million — except to suggest to his college audience that it might be “someone’s grandmother” — but he may have been referring to the “uninsured” who would be covered by Obamacare. If so, that’s a figure that’s been through more changes than Hillary Clinton’s hairstyle. In July 2009, the president said there were “47 million uninsured Americans.” The following month, he used the figure of 46 million. And in September, he and his administration began to speak of “30 million” uninsured. Is the president now boosting the estimate to 50? None of the numbers, incidentally, was correct. But that wouldn’t trouble someone bent not on leading but on misleading.
Last week, Rep. Paul Ryan was asked whether he and the Republicans were making themselves vulnerable to demagogic attacks by taking on entitlement spending directly. “We are,” he replied. “They are going to demagogue us, and — and it’s that demagoguery that has always prevented political leaders in the past from actually trying to fix the problem.”
You might have expected President Obama to be shamed out of his worst instincts by that prediction. He wasn’t.
— Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2011 Creators Syndicate.