By Chris Stirewalt, ,
Published December 20, 2015
“My goal is not to chase a balanced budget just for the sake of balance.”
-- President Obama talking to ABC News
Paul Krugman is not bankrupt.
Some news sites fell for a satirical story that claimed the New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist had fallen on hard times after high living.
In fact, when it comes to the currency of ideas, the Diogenes of deficit spending has never been in fuller flush. While he complains that Democrats, especially the one in the White House, have not fully embraced his ideas of stimulus through cheaply borrowed money, Krugman’s belief that it is the federal government’s obligation to run deficits during poor economic times is flourishing.
President Obama explained to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that deficit elimination was not a noble end unto itself. It’s just a scorekeeping device when the real concern is about joblessness. We’ve heard similar sentiments from Obama’s spokesman and other Obama Democrats, but the man himself made it clear on Tuesday.
While most voters still believe that a federal government which spends more than it takes in is a bad thing unto itself, Democrats, including the president, have lost their sense of outrage over deficit spending. Racking up trillions in debt, which Obama called “unpatriotic” and “irresponsible” under President George W. Bush is now cool.
Obama was still striking a pose as a deficit hawk after he took office. Recall that he repeated his long-forgotten pledge to halve the size of the federal deficit within four years after he took office and even after he launched his 2009 stimulus package.
The deficit that year was about $1.3 trillion, and Democrats at the time, despite having held both houses of Congress for two years, said this was the fault of President Bush and promised the Obama era would deliver less red ink.
And they were right about blame in at least one sense. Whomever is in the Oval Office is likely to feel less concerned about deficits than those who want to move into it. Bush, who was wrangling a massive national security and defense buildup concurrent with the posy-9/11 recession, lost his aversion to deficit spending.
Conservatives, formerly the ideological boosters of a balanced budget, cheered on what at the time seemed like astronomical deficits – approaching half-a-trillion dollars! – on the grounds that there was a war on and people ought not be ninnies about a little red ink.
Democrats, aiming for full control of Washington, pilloried Bush and his party for failing to “pay for” the war or stimulative tax cuts. Recall that Obama himself even voted against raising the federal borrowing limit on the grounds that Bush’s request represented a failure of leadership (plus, Obama was running for president).
That squeamishness about what Obama once called “tak[ing] out a credit card from the Bank of China” didn’t fully fade until 2010 when Democrats, gagging on high unemployment and an unpopular health-insurance entitlement, declared their deficit anxieties to be over.
The party fell in love with balanced budgets when an economic boom and divided government produced them in Bill Clinton’s second term. But liberals, just as conservatives had under Bush, gave up on limiting federal indebtedness as a good unto itself.
Back in the minority, Republicans have rediscovered their zeal for balanced budgets. It never felt right for many in the conservative party to be big spenders and big borrowers so the last four years has been something of a prodigal son moment for the GOP. Plus, it is devastatingly good politics, as Obama’s current pickle shows.
So now that Republicans, down on their luck, have rediscovered their shared outrage over debt Obama is left to do what Bush had to do, even though borrowing for Obama’s domestic initiatives dwarfs Bush’s guns and butter deficits.
Hence the president’s sudden, urgent and heretofore unseen desire to do a deficit deal. Republicans are killing him with this deficit stuff and, just as he found when he was badgering Bush, it makes a very effective political tool.
But we’ve learned two things this week that tell us that Obama sure hasn’t rediscovered his old religion as a deficit hawk.
First, National Journal’s Ron Fournier reported that the current outreach by the president is strictly phony.
“This is a joke. We're wasting the president's time and ours. I hope you all (in the media) are happy because we're doing it for you,” Fournier quoted an Obama White House official as saying.
Liberals, who have convinced themselves that deficit spending isn’t just unobjectionable but an objective good, think that it is silly for the president to have to make nice with Republicans on the subject. But the outreach to Republicans, Fournier tells us, is just to provide political cover after a couple of rocky weeks before getting back to the business of torching Republicans for opposing additional spending.
Like the Bush Republicans did in the aughts, the Obama Democrats promise that deficits of today lead to the surpluses of tomorrow. And since Obama’s deficits are twice as big, just wait until you see the dividends come rolling in. Democrats say that the problem with the twice-as-big deficits is that they are not big enough. Krugman has led the charge on the left arguing that with interest rates at rock bottom, now is the time for more, more, more borrowing in order to get the economy back on track after six very lousy years.
The other thing that we’re learning about Obama and deficits this week is that this is not an issue that he particularly cares about.
When he speaks to donors to his personal national committee today he will certainly use the words “deficit reduction” and mention his “balanced approach” but he will surely talk much more about the need for more spending and more deficits to a crowd that is giving money in order to see money spent, not cut.
But as the president’s remarkably fast retreat on shuttering the White House to public tours shows, he knows that beyond his donors and loyalists, the ongoing deficit impasse is a terrible loser for him and his team – just as it was for the Bush Republicans in 2006 and 2008.
But as to whether the president is serious about doing a “big deal” on deficit reduction, he’s shown his cards. Deficits only matter as political tools, and right now he’s on the sharp end of the deficit stick.
And Now, A Word From Charles
"Remember, it was a year ago when the secretary of defense, Panetta, said that by six months ago Israel would already have attacked Iran. When the prime minister spoke at the General Assembly he had a cartoon bomb and said we are going to reach critical moment in spring or summer. Spring starts next week."
-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.