Government Spending

Obama to Propose Three-Year Spending Freeze

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As telegraphed late last year, and goosed by last week's Democratic debacle in Taxachusetts, President Barack Obama is pivoting to forestall a 1994-style wipeout by declaring the era of big government over before Republicans retake Congress. Politico has the story:

Cold!

President Obama plans to announce a three-year freeze on discretionary, "non-security" spending in the lead-up to Wednesday's State of the Union address, Hill Democratic sources familiar with the plan tell POLITICO. […]

The freeze would not apply to defense spending or spending on intelligence, homeland security or veterans.

Three quick reactions: 1) Great! 2) Note that this is actually more modest than what Obama repeatedly promised on the campaign trail, including after the financial crisis hit: a "net spending cut." Excluding defense is a recipe for falling short of that "net." 3) See Number 2, re: promises.

At the risk of quoting myself (which, to be fair, is still more seemly than having a researcher dig up and hype "another Welch classic"), my first post-election magazine column was dedicated to the "glimmer of possibility" that Obama's economic numbers would "add up." My argument then:

Only one pro-Obama—as opposed to anti-Republican—argument ever really resonated with me, and that was the notion that, unlike McCain and most Republican presidential nominees of recent vintage, Obama did a relatively credible job of making sure his budget figures "added up." There was, I repeatedly read and heard from economic number crunchers such as The Atlantic's Megan McArdle, a genuinely impressive attempt to translate the hot air of campaign promises into the cold reality of a plausible balance sheet. "What I've done throughout this campaign is to propose a net spending cut," Obama said in his final pre-election debate with McCain. "I have been a strong proponent of pay as you go. Every dollar [in spending] that I've proposed, I've proposed an additional cut so that it matches."

To his credit, he's talking a SPENDING freeze, not a deficit cut

You should never take a politician at his word. But you should listen to what he campaigns on day after day, especially if he goes on to win big. Amid Obama's host of illiberal campaign ideas—"fair" trade, centralized energy policy, New Deal–style infrastructure projects, more federal dollars into the sinkhole of public schools—the Democratic candidate also spiced his daily stump speech with a firm-sounding nod to fiscal responsibility. Coupled with a sorry budget situation that's certain to get worse as a result of massive income tax losses from Wall Street, this commitment to fiscal sobriety may strangle many of Obama's more expensive fantasies in the crib and crack open the door for ending or privatizing any number of inefficient federal programs.

Well, so much for that, at least in Year One. I don't doubt that Obama has the Clinton-like political ability to pivot on a dime and sell it with brio. What I do doubt, after a year of watching him, is that he truly believes in his heart of governing hearts that this is a virtuous or workable path, or that he's particularly concerned with the considerable gap between what he promises and what he delivers. Presidents, including the last guy, whatshisname, always promise deficit-reduction in every State of the Union Address. We still haven't quite launched that Mission to Mars. I will be happy–and at this point, shocked–to be proven overly skeptical.