President Barack Obama’s much-trumpeted move to the center? Apparently, it doesn’t go much beyond using buzzwords such as “innovation” and employing CEOs as stage props. His 2012 budget introduction and Wisconsin incursion make that clear.
This was the week for the president to show that he had really learned the lessons of both the 2010 midterms and the shortfalls of his own economic policies. Instead, it was the American public that learned something. It learned that Obama pretty much is who he is – and he’s probably not going to change.
He’s the guy who was the U.S. Senate’s most extreme liberal. He’s the guy who told Joe the Plumber that he wanted to “spread the wealth around.” He’s the guy who tried to use the Great Recession to greatly expand the welfare state.
He’s that guy.
Obama’s 2012 budget was the first revelatory moment of the week. Even with rosy economic projections, it would still add another $9 trillion to the national debt from 2011 through 2021. And it did nothing to address entitlements, the key drivers of America’s long-term fiscal problems, even though his own debt commission gave him a plan with bipartisan support.
Even worse, Obama attempted to hide the budget’s alarming profligacy. In his news conference, Obama stated that by the middle of the decade, his just-released budget would “not be adding more to the national debt. … We’re not going to be running up the credit card anymore.” Yet from 2015 through 2021, the Obama budget would add $4.7 trillion to the national debt. And public debt as a share of the overall economy would rise to 77.0 percent from 76.1 percent.
But the president tossed in a qualifier: “Our annual spending will match our annual revenues.” Well, that clears things up. If you don’t count $3.7 trillion in interest payments as part of spending, the budget is balanced in 2017 and then slowly builds a tiny surplus.
Yet Obama’s narrowly define surpluses will quickly disappear in coming decades as government healthcare spending explodes. And if the economy grows a bit more slowly than what White House economists now forecast — say, more like the predictions from the Congressional Budget Office — Obama’s primary deficits would never disappear at all.
But just as entitlements are the root problems of the federal budget, at the state level it’s the fat pension and healthcare benefits — unfunded to the tune of $3.5 trillion — awarded to government unions by the politicians they elected.
The result is the Battle of Madison as Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin tries to get a handle on a budget shortfall of $3.6 billion, as well as longer-term fiscal problems. He probably didn’t expect an encouraging word for the White House, and he was not disappointed.
As Obama told a Milwaukee television reporter: “Some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where they’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions.”
Entitlements and government unions are both products of the heyday of American liberalism from the 1930s through the 1970s. Just like when Mikhail Gorbachev ascended to power in the old Soviet Union with the goal of modernizing and preserving that system, Obama hopes to do the same with America’s union-backed welfare state by making it — and funding it — more like Europe’s.
If Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey are successful at the state level and Rep. Paul Ryan at the national, Obama may instead preside over its collapse.