Politics & Policy

Winning Ugly: Obama and the Fiscal Cliff

The president hasn’t fulfilled the second half of his campaign promise.

By all accounts, President Obama won the fiscal-cliff showdown. Why anyone would take much pride in this kind of “win” is beyond me. It’s a bit like being the least filthy toddler in the mud pit.

One of the main reasons Obama won, according not only to Obama but to a sometimes cheering press, is that he had a mandate. He ran on the need for the wealthy to “pay their fair share.”

#ad#To his credit, Obama never said raising taxes on the “rich” will solve all of our problems. What he did say, however, is that he couldn’t in good conscience ask seniors and college students to take a hit from budget cuts without asking the wealthy to pay their fair share. He wanted “shared sacrifice” and a “balanced approach” because we’re “all in it together.”

Here is what Obama said in his weekly address on July 16, 2011: “The truth is, you can’t solve our deficit without cutting spending. But you also can’t solve it without asking the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share.”

“This is not class warfare,” Obama said in September of 2011. “It’s math.”

He continued: “Either we ask the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share in taxes, or we’re going to have to ask seniors to pay more for Medicare. We can’t afford to do both.”

And here’s what he said just days after he was reelected: “But as I’ve said before, we can’t just cut our way to prosperity. If we’re serious about reducing the deficit, we have to combine spending cuts with revenue. And that means asking the wealthiest Americans to pay a little more in taxes. That’s how we did it in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president.”

Now, I have plenty of disagreements with all of this. The president seems to think that if he calls class warfare “math,” it’s suddenly not class warfare. Also, the man’s version of the last two decades of economic history has always struck me as at best flawed and, more properly speaking, barmy. During the campaign he assiduously worked to give the impression that the 2008 financial crisis was caused by George W. Bush’s tax cuts (something even the official studies of the crisis never suggested) and that the 1990s economic boom, which didn’t even begin on Clinton’s watch, was launched by Clinton’s tax hikes.

Also, the idea that the rich hadn’t been paying their fair share is at least debatable. When Obama took office in 2009, the richest 5 percent of Americans paid almost 40 percent of all federal taxes, and the richest 1 percent paid 22 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office. If you count only federal income taxes, the top 5 percent and top 1 percent paid, respectively, 59 percent and 37 percent.

But none of that matters. Obama was reelected on a twofold promise. Part one was to make the wealthy pay their fair share. Part two: fix our debt crisis, which Obama himself has conceded is chiefly driven by entitlement spending. Right or wrong, he’s done part one, according to the standards he laid out in the campaign (although he did want to raise taxes on incomes starting at $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples but settled for $400,000 and $450,000, respectively). The fiscal-cliff deal raises $41 in taxes for every dollar it cuts in spending — not just by raising rates on the wealthy, but also by raising payroll taxes on everyone. The revenues from making the rich pay their fair share will slow the sinking of America into an ocean of debt about as much as throwing all the swizzle sticks off the Titanic would have delayed the inevitable. 

Heck, the deal actually increases spending and the national debt. So, clearly, promise number two remains unfulfilled.

Will Obama act on the second part of his mandate? It doesn’t look good. He’s now claiming he already cut $1 trillion in 2011, largely by “cutting” spending no one ever planned to spend. If I plan to build an orbital Death Star for $10 trillion and then think better of it, I’ve cut $10 trillion, according to Obama’s math. His own White House Office of Management and Budget says spending went up $147 billion last year.

Moreover, at the last minute, before the deal was even agreed to, Obama insisted that any future deficit-reduction package must include even more tax hikes.

It’s clear that the Republicans mishandled this whole fiasco. If they were going to lose on tax hikes anyway, they might as well have lost early and spent the last month pounding Obama on the second part of his promise.

Meanwhile, if the press corps can take a break from celebrating Obama’s victory over those crazy Republicans who want to keep us from going bankrupt, they might start asking Obama about the rest of his mandate.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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