When Barack Obama ran for the presidency in 2007 and 2008, he insisted that the country needed bold change and leadership, not experience and an executive track record. Obama said that his vision and representation of "hope and change" would solve America’s problems, especially the economic woes that he blamed on George W. Bush and the Republicans. Obama sailed into office on the claim that only he had the courage to change the way Washington conducts its business.
Instead, with the release of his proposed Fiscal Year 2012 budget today, Obama has shown himself to be a business-as-usual insider at heart — and his political opponents as the true agents of real change and courage.
Recall that Obama formed a presidential commission tasked with developing a plan to tackle national debt and ongoing budget deficits, projected to reach $12 trillion in the next ten years, according to The Hill's report last night. His National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform was authorized to examine all federal spending, including the entitlements that are driving most of the deficit problem. The bipartisan panel, headed by former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, presented a tough and unpopular plan (it failed even to win support from all panel members) that would have cut roughly $4 trillion in deficit spending during the next ten years. Even those cuts would have reduced deficit spending by only 33 percent during the decade.
The first hint that Obama would ignore the results of his own blue-ribbon panel came during the State of the Union speech last month. Obama barely mentioned the panel itself, stating that the notion of cutting non-security discretionary spending alone was insufficient. He didn't bother to mention any of the panel's recommendations, and only mentioned the word "cuts" six times in the speech. Two of those referenced tax cuts — one bragging about his own and the other complaining about the Bush-era tax cuts.
Today, the other shoe dropped. Obama's new budget proposal will cut $1.1 trillion from budget deficits during the next ten years, less than 10 percent of the total projected debt during that period. The debt commission recommended a 33 percent reduction; instead, Obama has offered much less — nearly 75 percent less. The recommendations of Obama's panel still would have set federal spending on course to increase the national debt by $8 trillion over the next ten years, from the current $14 trillion debt level. That would represent about 157 percent of current GDP — well past the point where Greece went into crisis. Obama's new proposal will add almost $11 trillion to the debt, an increase of 79 percent, representing 179 percent of current GDP.
Contrast this with the actions of the freshman class of the House Republican Congress. The GOP's Midterm-campaign Pledge to America included a promise to cut $100 billion in spending during the 2011 budget cycle, which rested on the presumption that a heavily Democratic Congress and a Democratic President could actually pass a budget. When infighting held up the 2011 budget, House GOP leaders tried to pro-rate the spending cuts into the continuing resolution that would fund the rest of 2011, and came up with a figure of $32 billion, which amounted to less than 1 percent of the projected full year's budget.
Newly elected Republicans in the House revolted at the shrunken target. Speaker John Boehner lost two floor votes within days of each other, indicating a massive rebellion among the freshman class. The caucus went into emergency meetings and emerged with a much larger figure in hand: $100 billion in seven months of spending, equal to $170 billion in a year. That falls short of the $4 trillion reduction over ten years proposed by the debt commission, but it far outstrips the President’s meager average of $110 billion per year.
Obama's new budget proposal demonstrates a lack of leadership and initiative. A President looking to lead his nation to firmer fiscal footing would have used the debt commission report as a launching pad for a complete overhaul of the federal government and how it spends money, especially since the creation of the debt commission was intended to provide both the White House and Congress political cover to do just that. Instead, Obama watered down the proposal so much that it barely dents the debt trajectory at all.
It also exposes a boldness deficit. House Republicans managed to find those cuts within five weeks of taking control of Congress, without a debt commission to provide them political cover. Obama got outbid despite taking office over two years ago promising an end to business as usual. The incoming freshman class of the House Republican majority have taken the initiative, seizing the mantle that Obama has abdicated.