President Obama’s speech hits some marks; misses many others

I finally had a chance to catch all of the deficit reduction speech President Obama gave Wednesday – “reduction” being the key word.

The president spoke for more than 40 minutes but only came up with $4 trillion in projected cuts in the rate we are already going into debt. That’s not cutting $4 trillion off the $14 trillion the country already owes. That means if his proposals pass, the country would run $4 trillion less in future deficits over 12 years than it would otherwise.

Obama, in fact, didn’t even set a balanced budget as a goal. He talked vaguely about a trigger that would force more reductions if the deficit stopped falling as a percentage of the economy – and not until 2014.

The president didn’t offer a lot of specifics. He used the tired “scalpel, not a machete” line when talking about cuts in government. Please – it’s going to take more than a scalpel. His prescriptions involved cutting defense spending and reviewing America’s place in the world, which makes sense. According to the Pete Peterson Foundation, the United States spends more on defense than the next 14 countries combined – including China, to whom we owe a trillion dollars. He also talked about reducing health care costs and raising taxes on the wealthy. Actually, he talked about that last point a lot, even going so far as to say that the rich actually would be glad to pay higher taxes if only Washington would ask. Really?

Obama took sharp aim at the plan advanced by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) that would turn Medicare into a voucher plan, calling the Republicans’ proposal “pessimistic.” I agree that it’s a bad idea, and politically it’s a nonstarter.

Whether or not one agrees with Obama’s policies, his history is really shaky. Early in the speech, he talked about past efforts in the Bush I and Clinton administrations to bring spending more in line with revenues. And then he said this:

“As a result of these bipartisan efforts, America’s finances were in great shape by the year 2000. We went from deficit to surplus. America was actually on track to becoming completely debt-free, and we were prepared for the retirement of the baby boomers.”

Whoa. America’s finances were not in great shape by the year 2000. In fact, the government only managed to balance its budget once without borrowing from Social Security during that time of peace and prosperity. Becoming debt-free was as much a fantasy as my having a full head of hair, and the United States was nowhere near prepared for the baby boomers’ retirement.

So what did Obama get right? He correctly identified the national debt as a major problem, asserting that by 2025, all the taxes Americans currently pay would go to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest payments on the debt. He said that serious plans would require the country to “put everything on the table.” And at one point, he clearly defined the problem as being not only a political one but a cultural one as well.

Here’s what he said.

“We can solve this problem. We came together as Democrats and Republicans to meet this challenge before. We can do it again. But that starts by being honest about what’s causing our deficit. You see, most Americans tend to dislike government spending in the abstract but like the stuff that it buys. Most of us, regardless of party affiliation, believe that we should have a strong military and a strong defense. Most Americans believe that we should invest in education and medical research. Most Americans think we should protect commitments like Social Security and Medicare. And without even looking at a poll, my finely honed political instincts tell me that almost nobody believes they should be paying higher taxes. So because all this spending is popular with both Republicans and Democrats alike, and because nobody wants to pay higher taxes, politicians are often eager to feed the impression that solving the problem is just a matter of eliminating waste and abuse.”

Amen to that part.

Here’s the speech. Judge for yourself.

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