White House Blue Room


The Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent flagged something interesting from President Obama’s press conference today, in which he says "Obama makes his case to the left":

If you are a progressive, you should be concerned about debt and deficit just as much as if you’re a conservative. And the reason is because if the only thing we’re talking about over the next year, two years, five years is debt and deficits, then it’s very hard to start talking about how do we make investments in community colleges so that our kids are trained. How do we actually rebuild $2 trillion worth of crumbling infrastructure.


It would be very helpful for us to be able to say to the American people: “Our fiscal house is in order. So, now the question is, what should we be doing to win the future, and make ourselves more competitive, and create more jobs, and what aspects of what government’s doing are a waste, and we should eliminate.” And that’s the kind of debate that I’d like to have.

Please stop saying "win the future." Please stop saying "win the future." Maybe call Leo Burnett or Peggy Noonan. I’ll chip in just so I never, ever have to hear that phrase again.

Sorry, what was I saying? Oh, right. The above might be, as Sargent says, "the most extensive reply to that criticism yet." But just because it’s extensive doesn’t mean it’s outside of the same circles we’ve been talking in. Since Obama was a Senator, actually. I mentioned yesterday that Obama voted against raising the debt limit in 2006. Now he says he wouldn’t, which is sensible, but his argument hasn’t really changed, it’s just that he’d (presumably) no longer cut off the country’s nose to spite its face.

And the cost of our debt is one of the fastest growing expenses in the Federal budget. This rising debt is a hidden domestic enemy, robbing our cities and States of critical investments in infrastructure like bridges, ports, and levees; robbing our families and our children of critical investments in education and health care reform; robbing our seniors of the retirement and health security they have counted on.

Every dollar we pay in interest is a dollar that is not going to investment in America’s priorities. Instead, interest payments are a significant tax on all Americans–a debt tax that Washington doesn’t want to talk about. If Washington were serious about honest tax relief in this country, we would see an effort to reduce our national debt by returning to responsible fiscal policies.

Jonathan Bernstein adds: "That’s a bold claim: if the deficit were no longer perceived as a problem, then it would be much easier to pass liberal programs."

But it’s not, really; obviously having one less cudgel to beat those policies with would make it easier to pass them.

The progressive criticism, broadly speaking, is not that the deficit doesn’t matter in the medium and long term, it’s that progressives don’t like the methods being floated to cut the deficit: "in the very near term the recovery is still rather fragile, and that sharp and excessive cuts in the very short term would be potentially damaging to that recovery."

Wait, that’s not a liberal, that’s Ben Bernanke. The left is more concerned about the substantial size of the cuts the White House has signaled it prefers. They’re worried about the effect of declined revenue, i.e. the Bush tax cuts, on the public debt, and that fact’s lack of centrality to the debate, and the winding down of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, which are ending about as quickly as it takes Zeno to cross the street.

I get that he’s "making his case to the left." It’s just not a new or bold case, and while it may be an extensive reply, it doesn’t address the criticism itself.


Photograph: The White House