Politics & Policy

The Emperor Has No Plan

The president and his treasury secretary, March 23, 2012

In defending the Obama administration’s budget, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner responded to a query from House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan with a now infamous non-answer. “We’re not coming before you today to say we have a definitive solution to that long-term problem,” Geithner testified. “What we do know is, we don’t like yours.”

It is therefore no surprise that the president used what was nominally a budget address — before an unabashedly friendly audience of Associated Press editors and writers on Tuesday — instead as a campaign speech. When by your own lights you have no plan on offer to prevent a predictable and potentially catastrophic debt, it is best to try to render your political opponents as granny-gutting demons and their budget as a kind of occult document.

Thus we have a president accusing the Republican party of building a “Trojan horse” to “impose a radical vision” on the country that is “antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility.” Glossing cuts to the growth rate of discretionary spending as “draconian” measures in a program of “Social Darwinism” instead of setting GDP-percentage spending levels within 50-year norms. Painting a lengthy portrait of the 2000s as a supply-sider’s utopia in the throes of an orgy of deregulation and “trickle-down economics” to which the GOP would hasten our return. Repeating the canard about “end[ing] Medicare as we know it.” Detailing the long and tenuous causal chain between marginal budget cuts to the National Weather Service and the specter of Americans being trapped in a deadly hurricane, or between the devolution of Medicaid to the states and the forced deprivation of children with Down’s Syndrome.

#ad#As the president himself said in his remarks, “This is not an exaggeration.  Check it out yourself. . . . These are facts.”

Here is another fact. The president’s budgets, with their record-setting deficits and shameful silence on the entitlement crisis, have been voted against by 511 of the 535 elected members of Congress over the last calendar year. They have garnered zero votes in their favor. Not a Nancy Pelosi or a Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. Not one Harry Reid or Dick Durbin. His heralded “balanced approach” is in fact a cocktail of non-starters: spending cuts his base won’t abide and nobody else trusts in exchange for tax hikes like the ones that snookered Reagan, all admixed with a heavy dose of central planning for seniors and served with a twist of accounting gimmickry.

By contrast, the Ryan budget is the product not of a rump on the “radical” right but of a consensus in conservatism’s vital center. It attempts — we believe with a fair degree of success — to thread the needle between what the times require and what the politics allows. It is not a perfect document. But contra the president, the fact that it has been challenged by congressional Republicans to both its right and its left, criticized for both going to far and doing too little, is indicative not of a party trapped by ideology, but of one engaged in a serious conversation about how to solve our most pressing problems. That the president’s DOA budget has been challenged by a fantasyland proposal from the House progressive caucus (it doubles down on the president’s tax hikes and includes a public option for health care), and that there has been no budget at all from Senate Democrats is also indicative.

And so we end up after the president’s speech in precisely the same place we were before it. The president still doesn’t have a plan. And he still doesn’t like ours.

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

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