The Corner

Subject: Obama’s speech

An e-mail in response to this post:

Hi Rich,

You wrote, “Obama has been in public office since 1997. Has he ever fought to eliminate government programs? Ever? If so, I’m unaware of it. He has the opportunity to re-invent himself in these circumstances and on this stage, but no one should believe him until meaningful non-defense programs are zeroed out or cut.”

1. Most presidents, even purportedly conservative ones, have failed to eliminate government programs. Reagan talked a big game, but the dollar value of programs he cut relative to total federal spending was miniscule. So I think your skepticism is well-placed. However,

2. Jimmy Carter junked the Civil Aeronautics Board (and authorized a lot of economic deregulation). That was probably not Carter’s intention when he came to Washington. But by giving jobs to men like Alfred Kahn, that was where Carter ended up. In Obama’s case, some of his appointees (think Arne Duncan, for example) have anti-status quo credentials, so Obama may end up getting rid of a few programs which don’t work; and

3. Why is it less meaningful to cut a defense program which is a failure? The attachment to unnecessary defense programs is true of people who call themselves liberals and conservatives. These programs develop a constituency to keep the programs going to benefit the constituents. Never is there a counter-constituency with as much desire to axe the failed programs. Defense is the second most wasteful department in the federal budget (after Agriculture). It’s stupid to think it is any less of an accomplishment to get rid of defense pork projects than pork in any other areas, just because a handful of Berkeley and Cambridge radicals fancy themselves as anti-defense.

ME: I didn’t single out domestic programs as the standard because I believe there’s no waste in defense, but because when liberals cut government—see Bill Clinton—they usually cut defense. If Obama is the post-ideological pragmatist of his self-portrayal, he’ll be more wide-ranging in these promised cuts in government.


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