One of the reasons the president did not sound convincing in his press conference yesterday is that he has taken so many positions on the debt and taxes that it is hard know what his current one is, or whether to take it seriously, much less to gauge how long it will last.
He calls for more taxes, but in December reiterated — after the midterm shellacking — that it was unwise to raise taxes in times of uncertainty. Apparently that was then, this is now; perhaps he calculates that the tea-party angst has peaked.
He deplores threats not to raise the debt ceiling, but as a senator in 2006 voted, replete with lectures on fiscal sobriety, to do just that — even though the debt then was $5 trillion smaller and the economy far stronger.
He talks of “eating our peas” and doing the hard work of getting the budget balanced, but had he his way, budgets for the next four years would have had even greater deficits. Obviously such calls for prudence are a result only of the 2010 elections and do not characterize his own reckless budgets the two years prior.
Now, more than half the country does not know whether their president believes in raising income-tax rates or why, whether failing to raise the debt ceiling is nihilistic or a legitimate way to send a message, or whether their president really believes in fiscal sobriety or is worried about his own past massive borrowing only to the degree that it results in political jeopardy.
Is there any logic in all the inconsistency? Partisanship explains some things: As a Democratic outsider in 2006, voting against Bush’s raising of the debt ceiling was garden-variety politics. As for the disappearance of his post-shellacking fiscal sobriety, he probably calculates that the anger in November 2010 was generic, and must now translate into support for a particular Republican candidate, thus he is not so concerned about raising taxes now, eight months after a supposedly one-time populist venting.
But the ad hoc making-it-up-as-he-goes-along that comes from inexperience explains just as much: From 2009 to 2010, the creed was gorge the beast — borrow so much money for pet programs and liberal nostrums that higher taxes would have to follow, a good redistributive thing in itself. When that didn’t happen, he suddenly froze and for the first time in 30 months is talking, in Jerry Brown post–Prop 13 style, of reining in the debt that he himself advocated and piled up.
The sad thing now is that no one knows what the president will say about deficits on any given day, other than a rough (and often wrong) calculation of what he thinks will win in November 2012.