Presidential Promises and Pretenses

Obama's contribution to the "deficit of trust"


The day before President Obama delivered his State of the Union address last week, The New York Times reported that "aides said he would accept responsibility, though not necessarily blame" for failing to deliver on promises he made during his campaign. If you accept responsibility for something bad, aren't you accepting blame by definition? Not if you're Barack Obama, who has a talent for accepting responsibility while minimizing and deflecting it.

"With all the lobbying and horse trading, the process [for producing health care legislation] left most Americans wondering, 'What's in it for me?'" Obama said in his SOTU speech. "I take my share of the blame." For breaking his oft-repeated promise to televise health care negotiations on C-Span? For agreeing to provisions that would benefit special interests at the expense of the general public? No. "For not explaining it more clearly to the American people"—as if the problem could have been solved with a nifty PowerPoint presentation.

At his meeting with House Republicans on Friday, Obama conceded that pointing out his failure to televise health care negotiations was "a legitimate criticism." But he also said coverage would have been hard to arrange because the negotiations occurred in several locations. Anyway, he said, "overwhelmingly the majority of it actually was on C-Span, because it was taking place in congressional hearings"—as if he had promised that C-Span would continue its longstanding practice of covering congressional hearings.   

The president is even less forthright when it comes to the fiscal responsibility he keeps promising. On Monday he declared, "We simply cannot continue to spend as if deficits don't have consequences, as if waste doesn't matter, as if the hard-earned tax money of the American people can be treated like Monopoly money."

Yet somehow he manages to do so. Obama's much-ballyhooed spending "freeze" would affect just one-eighth of the budget, would not begin until 2011, and would be accompanied by continued increases in outlays on the president's pet projects.

If you are serious about reducing spending, you don't increase it. Yet Obama's proposed budget for fiscal year 2011 totals $3.8 trillion, compared to the $3.6 he proposed the previous year. The deficit would drop a bit, from a record $1.6 trillion to around $1.3 trillion, only because of increased tax revenue.

Last year Obama said the deficit, expected to be 11 percent of gross domestic product this year, would fall to a "sustainable" 3 percent by the end of his first term. His new budget projections, even with the benefit of optimistic assumptions, indicate that he will never reach that goal even if he serves two terms and that the deficit will rise above 5 percent of GDP after he leaves office.

On Friday the president blamed the economy for his fiscal incontinence, saying "most of the increases in this year's budget" were "a consequence of the automatic stabilizers that kick in because of this enormous recession." But as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) noted, legislation signed by Obama increased domestic discretionary spending by 84 percent.

In addition to the health care transparency and spending restraint he has failed to deliver, Obama has broken promises to reduce the influence of special-interest lobbyists, to let people who like their current medical coverage keep it, to refrain from raising taxes on households earning less than $250,000 a year, to cut earmarks to 1994 levels, to take a more modest view of executive power and the "state secrets" privilege, to  close Guantanamo by last month, to end medical marijuana raids, to allow five days of public review before signing bills, and to recognize the Armenian genocide. PolitiFact.com counts 15 broken promises so far, and its standards are conservative.

In his SOTU address, Obama bemoaned "a deficit of trust—deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years." He blamed the public's "disappointment" and "cynicism" on powerful lobbyists, reckless bankers, highly paid CEOs, superficial TV pundits, and mud-slinging politicians. Conspicuously missing from the list: a president who breaks promises while pretending he isn't.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2010 by Creators Syndicate Inc.