(Page 3 of 3)
Sperling ascended to the top of Clinton’s economic team on the strength of what a 1996 New York Times article described as his “aggressiveness in selling President Clinton’s economic agenda,” launching detailed criticisms of GOP presidential rival Bob Dole’s tax plans before those plans had even been released. Under Obama, Sperling has continued to engage in the same sort of aggressive spin. He is a frequent guest on Bloomberg TV, where he provides viewers with up-to-the-minute guides to the latest in administration talking points.
Those talking points are frequently designed to portray Obama as a centrist deficit hawk. At the end of November, as fights loomed over the fiscal cliff and debt limit, Sperling declared that Republicans “should recognize that the president has a very detailed plan, that it will bring our deficit and debt down as a percentage of the economy, and it’s balanced.” In January, with the fiscal cliff deal negotiated, he had updated his rhetoric, highlighting the “two and a half trillion dollars in deficit reduction” the White House had already achieved because the president engaged in “good faith compromise and very tough negotiations.”
Sperling’s messaging often shows a knack for lawyerly nuance. As the sequester—a package of automatic spending reductions that came about as part of the 2011 debt limit deal—kicked in at the beginning of March, he was the point man for the administration’s argument that Republicans thought of the idea first and thus should bear responsibility for its effects, despite journalist Bob Woodward’s reporting that the sequester was first proposed by the administration. Sperling’s response was to insist that Republicans had been adamant that the sequester could not include tax hikes, hence it was the GOP’s fault that the sequester took its final form.
At other times, Sperling, who is known for his willingness to work extreme hours, seems intent on simply exhausting his opponents. In April 2012, he authored an unusual document, first delivered as a speech to the Washington Association of Magazine Media, titled “The Case for Shared Sacrifice.” It was a 17-page attack on the budget plan of Republican House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, as well as on the media commentators he accused of lazily relying on “pox on both your houses” analysis.
Sperling never quits. Even on television, he speaks almost entirely in run-on sentences. These often play like an endless loop of Beltway bromides. In a February Bloomberg spot, Sperling began his response to a question on the coming sequestration cuts with: “All it takes for us to avoid this type of self-inflicted wound on our economy, on children’s mental health services, on our national defense, is for both sides to be willing to come together with the type of bipartisan compromise you need in divided government, and you know I think what’s been unfortunate is that our Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives have now gone to a very absolutist position—some may believe it very sincerely—but the idea that you shouldn’t have even one single penny of tax expenditure reductions or loophole reductions that would raise even a penny of revenues, that’s very unfortunate.…” At this point the anchor began to interrupt. Sperling kept going.
Invariably, Sperling wraps his machine-like recitations of administration talking points in a thin veneer of Clintonism: appeals to the necessity of compromise and bipartisan negotiation, descriptions of opponents’ plans as far-right or extreme, and self-congratulation for occasionally irritating his fellow Democrats. It hardly needs to be made explicit. Sperling, Krueger, and Lew all served in the previous Democratic administration, and their presence in the White House of 2013 seems intended to signify a continuity with the economic good times that the Clinton years have come to represent.
But Obama’s economy is not Clinton’s economy, Obama’s bureaucracy is not Clinton’s bureaucracy, and Obama’s budget is not Clinton’s budget: The 44th president spends more, borrows more, sees fewer jobs created, and shows no appetite for the kind of bipartisan compromise to reform federal benefits programs that made the 42nd president’s welfare reforms possible.
It is somewhat ironic that a president whose re-election campaign slogan consisted of a single word—“Forward”—has put together an economic team designed to evoke the past. But perhaps that is because there is nowhere left to go. Obama’s grand second-term ambitions are almost certain to be stymied by partisan differences, small-bore budget squabbles, public resistance to additional spending and taxation, and the decline in his own powers of persuasion.
Considered in that context, the administration’s second-term economic team reveals a roster built not for offense but for defense—protecting the status quo on entitlements and spending, explaining away the continually weak economy, dutifully making the Oval Office’s case on the news of the day. America’s possibilities may indeed be limitless. But at this point, the administration’s are looking smaller by the day.