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Opinion: Columnists

Philip Klein: Obama's long record supporting deep defense cuts

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Opinion,Philip Klein,Columnists,Politics Digest

In 2000, the relatively inexperienced state Sen. Barack Obama challenged four-term Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush for his congressional seat representing the South Side of Chicago. Running against one of the most liberal members in the House of Representatives, Obama sought to burnish his own image as a self-described "progressive urban Democrat" who supported universal health care and tough campaign finance reform.

He also wanted to cut military spending.

According to a contemporaneous account published in the Chicago Tribune, during a March 2000 debate sponsored by the Urban League and League of Women Voters, Obama "criticized Congress for extravagant defense spending." At the time, the United States had just undergone a decadelong post-Cold War military drawdown. The defense budget, measured as the percentage of the economy, had fallen to its lowest level since before World War II.

On Tuesday, President Obama warned that automatic spending cuts to the Department of Defense would "jeopardize our military readiness" if they went into effect as scheduled on March 1. But Obama's ability to blame Republicans for the onset of the so-called sequester is complicated by his long record of advocating deep cuts to spending on national defense.

Following his unsuccessful House campaign in 2000, Obama regrouped and, soon enough, announced a long-shot bid for the U.S. Senate. In December 2003, as reported by Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times, Obama sought the endorsement of the liberal Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization.

In its candidate survey as part of the endorsement process, the group asked Obama, "Do you agree with the current proposed level of funding for the military?" Obama answered that "spending levels are too high" and blamed it on the Bush administration's "unilateralist" approach to foreign policy. "A foreign policy that sought better collaboration with our allies -- and emphasized diplomacy over military might -- would enable us to reduce our military budget while focusing it more effectively on the fight against international terror," he argued.

When he was running for president four years later, Obama recorded a video seeking the endorsement of Caucus4Priorities, a group founded by Ben Cohen (of Ben and Jerry's) to get candidates to commit to cutting defense. Obama was even more explicit: "I will cut tens of billions of dollars in wasteful spending," he vowed. "I will cut investments in unproven missile defense systems. I will not weaponize space. I will slow our development of future combat systems, and I will institute an independent Defense Priorities Board to ensure the quadrennial defense review is not used to justify unnecessary spending."

Once in office, Obama consistently pushed defense cuts. In his April 2011 speech on deficit reduction, Obama said, "Over the last two years, [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates has courageously taken on wasteful spending, saving $400 billion in current and future spending. I believe we can do that again." He proposed cutting another $400 billion by holding the growth in defense spending below inflation.

That summer, Obama's White House proposed creating a trigger for automatic spending cuts if a congressional "supercommittee" didn't come up with at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction. Congress passed the plan and Obama signed it into law.

As the 2013 implementation of the sequester loomed, Obama nominated Chuck Hagel as his secretary of defense, with the idea that having a former Republican senator in charge of the Pentagon would provide bipartisan cover for deep defense cuts. An outspoken proponent of slashing military spending, Hagel told the Financial Times in September 2011 that the defense budget was "bloated," and said, "The Pentagon needs to be pared down." Keep in mind Hagel made these comments after the sequester cuts had been signed into law.

Should defense spending cuts go into effect as scheduled, Obama's default strategy will be to blame Republicans. But his own record will significantly undermine his efforts.

Philip Klein (pklein@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @philipaklein.

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