President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address was devoid of memorable lines, but for me, two of them jumped out: “We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.”
Throughout his presidency, Obama has rhetorically wanted to establish himself as a transformational leader who was willing to tackle the nation’s tough problems, but when push came to shove, he has dodged them. This has been especially true than when it comes to dealing with the nation’s debt burden.
In his first inaugural speech four years ago, Obama condemned “our collective failure to make hard choices…” On February 23, 2009, just days after passing his $800 billion economic stimulus law, Obama hosted a “fiscal responsibility summit” at the White House in which he pledged, “to cut the deficit we inherited by half by the end of my first term in office.” He said, “this will not be easy. It will require us to make difficult decisions and face challenges we’ve long neglected. But I refuse to leave our children with a debt that they cannot repay, and that means taken responsibility right now, in this administration, for getting our spending under control.” He also emphasized, “In the coming years, we’ll be forced to make more tough choices, and do much more to address our long-term challenges.”
Yet the reality was much different. During his first term, Obama did little to restrain spending or make any sort of “tough choices” on deficits. His health care law did raise taxes and cut Medicare, but to finance a new entitlement slated to cost $1.7 trillion over the next decade. In 2010, Obama appointed a deficit reduction commission that was touted as a step toward dealing with the long-term debt problem, but in reality was merely a way of deflecting questions about deficits. For instance, at a July 2010 press availability, Obama declared, “We have put forward a fiscal commission that is then going to examine how do we deal with these broader structural deficits. So this isn’t just an empty promise. We’ve already started taking steps to deal with it, and we’re going to be very aggressive in how we deal with it.” Yet when the commission delivered its recommendations at the end of the year, Obama took the “aggressive” step of ignoring them. The only actual spending cuts Obama did agree to in his first term were in response to so-called Republican hostage-taking, but even then, he declined to address the long-term challenge of reforming the nation’s broken entitlement system and attacked Republican proposals that did so.
The end result is that when Obama first took the oath of office, the nation’s total outstanding debt was $10.6 trillion. When he was sworn in Monday, it stood at $16.4 trillion – and the Congressional Budget Office sees additional deficits ranging from $6.9 trillion to $9.2 trillion over the next decade, depending on the baseline used. Obama didn’t come close to meeting his pledge to cut annual deficits in half by the end of his first term and still hasn’t offered a plan to reform the nation’s broken entitlement system. He has talked of making “modest adjustments” to entitlement programs while raising taxes only on the very rich, when any serious budget analysis shows that getting the debt under control will require either massive cuts to entitlement spending, huge tax increases on the middle class, or some combination of both.
This brings us to the two lines in Monday’s speech. He declared that, “We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.” This is Barack Obama, bold leader speaking (with an extra twist of irony given that the signature legislative accomplishment of his first term was supposedly aimed at containing the growth of health care costs). Then, he said, “But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.” Translation: he isn’t going to do anything to seriously reform Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, and wants more economic stimulus spending, too. So, within a breath of calling for hard choices, he rejected the need for them. I can think of no more fitting summation of Obama’s presidency.