The weaker the hand Barack Obama has to play, the more sanctimonious he becomes. That was clear in his news conference last week when the president lectured Congress that "there's no point in procrastinating," and argued senators and representatives "need to do their job" and raise the debt ceiling. He presented himself as a model of fiscal discipline, the one serious adult in a city full of distracted children. This claim is detached from reality.
It is Mr. Obama who proposed—and Democratic congressional majorities that passed—the spending bills in 2009 and 2010 that are pushing the federal government up against the current debt ceiling of $14.3 trillion. It is Mr. Obama who started the year by demanding Congress pass a "clean" debt ceiling increase to $16.7 trillion—"clean" meaning no cuts or restraint, just a blank check to keep spending. Mr. Obama is the one without a budget, the Senate having sent his to the bottom of the Potomac by a 97-0 vote. And he has yet to publicly offer a real plan to cut spending, as House Republicans did months ago.
Thus, in backroom negotiations recently, the administration offered roughly $1 trillion in phony savings—mostly money that would never have been spent in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next 10 years anyway, along with $500 billion in interest savings on the trillion. It has also offered another supposed trillion in domestic and entitlement savings, but with cuts starting in 2014 and unlikely ever to be realized.
If the administration's spending cuts are mostly fake, its desire for tax increases is not. While the proposals are constantly shifting, you can be sure the president is looking to grab big chunks of cash from lots of people (and small businesses) who make less than a million a year.
There's still time for the president to make history's largest debt-ceiling increase a moment when spending is curbed, a debt crisis averted, entitlement programs saved, and a fraying social safety net repaired.
Karl Rove is a former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush. He is a Fox News contributor and author of "Courage and Consequence" (Threshold Editions, 2010). To continue reading his column in The Wall Street Journal, click here.