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Obama's Spending Freeze: A Return To Infantilism

First Posted: 03/28/10 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 04:20 PM ET

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The lack of merit to the idea of a three-year spending freeze has already been well picked over. Suffice it to say, as Robert Reich points out, it's a huge jobs killer. It excludes significant sources of debt, like defense spending. It indicates that the White House has all but abandoned making the case for health care reform as a means of reducing long-term structural deficits.
And since powerful lobbies still exist and continue to exert influence on policy, the programs that find themselves in the crosshairs will inevitably be those without powerful, moneyed influence groups behind them. So it won't be wasteful farm subsidies that are eliminated -- it will be programs that benefit middle and lower class Americans.

So much for that alliance between the White House and ACORN, I guess!

Beyond the bad economics, however, there's a more fundamental betrayal of principles, which I think Ryan Avent explains very eloquently in his blog for The Economist:

If it weren't enough that the proposal treats voters as children and a serious problem as a political football to be kicked around, the president's plan also appears to endanger an economy that hasn't meaningfully raised employment in over a decade and it solidifies defence spending as the untouchable budget category, when in fact it should be anything but.


I understand the arguments from supporters of the president that this is a political gambit, that it won't actually amount to much but a sound talking point and a tool with which to co-opt the president's moderate antagonists. What's the difference? Seriously. How does the president move from this to any important policy goal? What room does this leave him to deal with either the jobless recovery or the long-run budget deficit?

Through bad times and good times for the president, there was one word I never associated with him and his approach to the challenges facing the country: gimmick. But this is a bright shining gimmick that advertises a lack of seriousness to both near-term economic weakness and long-run budget problems. This is decidedly not what is needed right now. If this is the best the president can do, Democrats, and the country, are in for a very long few years.

I'm particularly struck by the way this proposal marks a return to the institutionalized infantilism that so defined the Bush presidency. One of the most significant things that Obama promised to do during the campaign was to simply level with the American people -- deal with them in straightforward fashion, tell the hard truths, make the tough choices, and go about explaining his decisions as if he were talking to adults. But this plan is so lacking in fundamental seriousness that it cannot be said to play any part of a mature exchange of ideas.

Similarly, one of my main criticisms of the proposed blue ribbon commission to reduce deficits has been the way it outsources the responsibility to make hard choices about reining in deficits to an unaccountable panel. There's nothing stopping Senators Judd Gregg or Kent Conrad from enumerating a list of spending cuts and attempting to get them passed into law. The reason no one wants to do that is that no one wants to own the political cost of having to make tough choices. The commission as imagined by Gregg and Conrad, has gone down to defeat in the Senate, but it looks like Obama is going to create his own by executive order. Again, there's nothing stopping Obama from drawing his own lines where budget priorities are concerned, but he apparently doesn't want to own the tough choices either.

Additionally, Avent is right as rain when he refers to this as a "bright, shining gimmick." This is a transparent attempt at political triangulation -- nothing more than a budget peacock, showing its plumage in order to get independent voters sniffing around Obama's electoral nethers. The problem is that all those independent voters signed up for all of that Obama's-gonna-be-straight-with-us stuff, not the Obama's-gonna-pander-to-us-on-a-purely-superficial-level stuff.

Just yesterday, Obama told Diane Sawyer, "I'd rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president." But this proposed spending freeze is precisely the sort of thing you do when your goal is to achieve two-term mediocrity. It is, essentially, a show of strutting and fretting. Pageantry disguised as policy-making.

MORE:
President Obama concedes defeat [The Economist's Free Exchange]

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