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When President Barack Obama wanted to push an $800 billion “stimulus” or “recovery” bill through Congress a few weeks ago, he thought an atmosphere of economic crisis helped his cause. So he repeatedly warned of “catastrophe,” of “a crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse.”
A little more than a week later, Obama moved onto his next priority, proposing a unbridled federal budget that will spend $3.6 trillion next year and $5.3 trillion more in the next ten years than the Congressional Budget Office was projecting just last year. To get revenue for this budgetary explosion, Obama assumes the economy will be recovering at a nice clip next year, at a 3.2 percent annual rate.
What happened to the looming cataclysm? The Obama team argues that the passage of the recovery package has suddenly brightened the economic future. But there’s no way that $220 billion in extra government spending — the amount in the stimulus bill for 2010 — can be the margin of difference between irreversible catastrophe and healthy growth in a $14 trillion economy.
Obama exaggerated the downside of the economy two weeks ago so he could get more spending, and now he’s exaggerating its upside so he can get more spending. The fixed goal is more spending. The means — the rhetoric, the arguments, the assumptions — are flexible so long as they serve that ultimate goal.
The past few weeks should have cleared away the debate over Obama’s intentions — is he a pragmatist or an ideologue? Obama is a pragmatist in pursuit of an ideological prize, willing to zig and zag so long as his lodestar of expanded government is ahead of him.
A trope of conservative commentary about the stimulus package was that Nancy Pelosi had rolled the neophyte Obama, producing a sprawling monstrosity that betrayed his talk of pragmatism. This missed the point — Obama’s deference to Pelosi was his pragmatism. By giving Pelosi running room and enduring a few embarrassments, he got what he wanted, which was as much new spending as quickly as the political system could bear. If barely any Republicans could support it, so what? Bipartisanship was a means, not an end.
If Obama felt ill-used by this process, he wouldn’t be proposing to duplicate it with his health-care plan. Obama wants to give Congress a few principles and a $634 billion health-care slush fund, and let Congress go at it and write his health-care plan. How it works out exactly doesn’t matter so much than it gets done — and government grows.
Obama has been truest to the centrist image he projected in the campaign in his national-security policy, backing away from Pres. George W. Bush’s practices more in his rhetoric than in his actions. He hopes foreign policy can be reasonably managed by his team of heavy hitters — Hillary Clinton, with her troika of special envoys, Richard Holbrooke, Dennis Ross, and George Mitchell — while he focuses on the more central goal of more domestic spending.
Nothing can distract from that higher call. The financial crisis is still at the heart of our economic woes, but Obama has refused to grapple with it forthrightly. The contrast with Franklin Roosevelt — who acted immediately and forcefully to stem his (much more dire) banking crisis — couldn’t be starker. Why punt on the financial crisis? Because bold action means courting considerable political risk, and that could threaten the larger spending agenda. In this sense, the spending is evidently more important than recovery for Obama.
Obama’s critics who accused him of “socialism” during the presidential campaign were roundly ridiculed. What rank name-calling! The charge didn’t have much resonance because the best (not particularly convincing) evidence for it was Obama’s proposed tax credit for workers who don’t pay the income tax. But Obama’s opponents read him well. He has the heart, if not the affect, of an ideologue. For him, above all else, the spending is the thing.