President Obama's second inaugural address offered few memorable words. But two lines in sequence jumped out at us nonetheless, because the second one contradicts the first: "We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit," Obama 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."
This is essentially Obama's way of telling everyone what they want to hear. "Lord, give us all chastity -- but not yet!" Throughout his presidency, Obama has tried to establish himself rhetorically as a transformational leader taking on the nation's tough problems -- especially America's mounting debt. In the meantime, he has consistently dodged these problems -- again, especially the debt.
In his first inaugural speech four years ago, Obama condemned "our collective failure to make hard choices." On Feb. 23, 2009, just days after signing his $800 billion economic stimulus into 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."
In reality, Obama avoided nearly all tough choices on deficits. His health care law raised taxes and cut Medicare, but only in order to finance a new entitlement that will cost $1.7 trillion over the next decade. In 2010, Obama appointed a deficit reduction commission but ignored its recommendations and used them only to deflect questions about deficits. For instance, in July 2010 Obama insisted, "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."
The only actual spending cuts Obama did agree to in his first term were in response to so-called Republican hostage-taking. Even then, the cuts were modest and fell within the discretionary part of the budget. He has repeatedly declined to address the long-term challenge of reforming the nation's broken entitlement system.
Obama has talked of solving the deficit problem by making "modest adjustments" to entitlement programs while raising taxes only on the very rich. Yet any serious budget analysis shows that getting the debt under control will require either massive cuts to entitlement spending, huge additional tax increases on the middle class, or some combination of both.
When Obama first took the oath of office, the nation's total outstanding debt was $10.6 trillion. On Monday, it stood at $16.4 trillion. And even now he hasn't offered so much as a plan to tackle the problem.
This pattern of dithering over the nation's most pressing problem made the contradiction in Obama's Monday speech somewhat unsurprising. Within the same breath, he called for tough choices and then rejected the need for making them. If there is a more fitting summary of Obama's presidency, we do not know what it is.