Politics & Policy

Obama Makes History (of Our AAA Credit)

The Obama administration and congressional Democrats are betting their political futures on the hope that the American electorate is ignorant and forgetful, and hence the memo has gone out to functionaries hither and yon, from David Axelrod to John Kerry: This is to be called the “tea-party downgrade.” That this is said with straight faces bespeaks either an unshakable contempt for the mind of the American voter or an as-yet unplumbed capacity for Democratic self-delusion.

Let us revisit the facts. The original debt-ceiling deal put forward by the Democrats totaled $0.00 in debt reduction. This would have fallen approximately $4 trillion short of the $4 trillion in debt reduction the credit-rating agencies suggested would constitute a “credible” step toward maintaining our AAA rating and avoiding a downgrade. This $0.00 program was the so-called “clean” debt-ceiling bill — the one that contained not a farthing of debt reduction. Bad as it was, Republicans agreed to give Democrats a vote on it. Some 82 Democrats and every Republican voted against it, and for good reason: Doing nothing at all is hardly a “credible” program.

The Democrats have suggested that Republicans’ refusal to accede to tax hikes is the main reason Standard & Poor’s felt it necessary to issue a downgrade, the first in American history, last Friday evening. In their assessment of Standard & Poor’s reasoning, the Democrats are acutely at odds with Standard & Poor’s. The credit-rating agency did not call for tax hikes in its assessment: “Standard & Poor’s takes no position on the mix of spending and revenue measures that Congress and the Administration might conclude is appropriate for putting the U.S.’s finances on a sustainable footing.” No position on tax hikes. But S&P, along with the other credit-rating agencies, has long taken a position on one aspect of our fiscal troubles: entitlement reform. From S&P again: “The plan envisions only minor policy changes on Medicare and little change in other entitlements, the containment of which we and most other independent observers regard as key to long-term fiscal sustainability.”

As anybody who has looked at our long-term deficit projections knows, entitlement spending is the major driver of our future deficits. With unfunded liabilities for Social Security and Medicare already running into trillions of dollars — many multiples of our GDP — it is implausible that taxes would be raised sufficiently to meet those obligations. Sustaining present spending levels over coming decades while maintaining current levels of debt would mean nearly doubling every federal tax: income, payroll, inheritance, excises, etc. To repeat: That’s to maintain current debt levels, not to reduce them. Even if the political will existed to inflict such tax increases on the American people, doing so would prove economically ruinous. Entitlement reform, then — not taxes, not President Obama’s fictitious “balanced approach” — is rightly understood, as S&P argues, as the “key to long-term fiscal sustainability.” Tea-party leaders, far from being a barrier to entitlement reform, have demanded it.

The main obstacle to reform is the gentleman who lives at at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and his legislative enablers down the street. Recall: Though Democrats controlled the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives from 2008–10, and therefore could have forced through any budget they saw fit, they left the nation with no budget at all — much less a reformed or balanced one — never bothering to pass one in the year before they lost their House majority. Though congressional Democrats could not be bothered, President Obama did submit a 2011 budget. It contained $0.00 toward entitlement reform. He soon disavowed his own budget proposal. The president later gave a speech in which he said he’d like to see $4 trillion in deficit-reduction, but submitted no budget or other legislation to accompany that rhetoric. The head of the Congressional Budget Office, a Democrat, was moved to observe dryly that his agency “does not score speeches.”

#page#But the CBO does score legislative proposals, and gave good marks to a bipartisan proposal offered by the president’s own hand-picked deficit-reduction panel. The presidential commission offered a credible plan, one that even included the tax increases so beloved of this administration. Naturally, the president disavowed his own commission’s proposal, just as he would disavow his own budget proposal. Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi declared it “dead on arrival” in the House. The plan was angrily rejected by congressional Democrats precisely and specifically because it contained modest entitlement-reform proposals. Likewise, Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, which would have brought health-care entitlement spending down to sustainable levels while making key reforms to improve the performance of those programs, passed the House only to be rejected out of hand by Sen. Harry Reid and his Democratic colleagues, precisely because it contained entitlement reforms. It would have cut some $4.4 trillion off of the deficits over a decade, well beyond the $4 trillion mark suggested by the credit-rating agencies. But Democrats would have none of it.

The deal that finally did pass would have contained significantly more in deficit-reduction, except for the fact that Democrats categorically refused to consider — is this sounding familiar? — entitlement reform, the most important issue.

Content to offer blind opposition, the Obama administration never put forward a detailed plan of its own, though it insisted it had one, a fact that resulted in a moment of unintentional comedy when White House press secretary Jay Carney irritatedly asked unconvinced reporters: “You need it written down?” When it comes to the Obama administration and spending restraint, the American people have every reason to demand that the president put it in writing.

And so we are led to this sorry pass. We are sympathetic to protests that S&P may have reacted more strongly to the political drama surrounding the debt-ceiling debate than was justified by the underlying economics: Despite the troubles in the eurozone, which are quite severe, Germany and France currently boast of higher credit ratings than that of the United States, a nation that accounts for nearly a quarter of the world’s economic output. But even those who believe S&P has overreacted must concede that the finances of the United States have been considerably weakened since 2008. Obama’s deficits have been unprecedented in peacetime, and this downgrade is unprecedented for our nation, at war or at peace. Its effects remain unknown at this time, but its causes do not: S&P spelled out its reasoning quite clearly.

Entitlement reform is the “key issue.” The Tea Party is not standing in the way of entitlement reform. Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid are. Democrats believe that they have discovered a cartoon villain in the Tea Party, and they are hoping that American voters are gullible enough to be distracted by the political theatrics. Come November 2012, Americans should keep in mind both the insult and the injury — to the nation and its credit. President Obama has indeed “made history,” as he promised, but not the sort that we might have hoped for.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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