That’s How Budgeting Works?

President Obama’s State of the Union address last night contained the usual presidential howlers. Those who thought it was a good speech had to buy into the usual underlying assumption of a presidential address—centralized authority, personified in the president, in Congress, and in nameless bureaucrats, knows best. As always, the empty promises that flow from this assumption were delivered-up without even a little irony or humility.

If you read the official transcript of his speech this morning, a line that should be the butt of every late-night comedian’s jokes will not appear—missing is Obama’s ad-libbed remark. There were snickers in the audience when Obama delivered the section of the speech about his partial budget freeze that “wouldn’t take effect until next year, when the economy is stronger.” The snickering was due to how little spending was being frozen and to the fact that the little spending that was being frozen would not be frozen until next year. Obama ad-libbed, “That’s how budgeting works.”

Suppose your alcoholic friend, in the midst of a drinking frenzy, told you he couldn’t stop drinking until he was sober. Further, suppose that this is your friend’s plan to get off alcohol: For the next three years, he would freeze his drinking level for only a fraction of his alcoholic intake—for instance, at parties he would not increase his drinking. For the vast majority of his drinking—his daily vodka, wine, or beer consumed at home—he would drink more than he does today. You wouldn’t exactly pat him on the back and tell him “way to go.” Yet, President Obama intends to do the equivalent for the federal budget—while freezing discretionary spending at current levels, most of the budget will continue to rise. Obama’s plan will have about as much success as that of your hypothetical alcoholic friend. The New York Times reports, “The estimated $250 billion in savings over 10 years would be less than 3 percent of the roughly $9 trillion in additional deficits the government is expected to accumulate over that time.”

Populist anger is rising in America. Last night, Obama attempted to harness this populist anger by playing the role of an outsider; he failed miserably. He may have been sincere in his belief that bailouts were necessary to save the economy, but his sincerity will not mollify the public. Many in the public may be more angry over what Washington is spending their money on—Wall Street bailouts—than the fact that Washington is spending more of their money. There is a real danger that this anger will eventually be channeled by unprincipled demagogues. When that happens, we will look back at our current political situation and its leaders as “the good old days.”

The nation needs statesmen and women who can clearly articulate and champion principles that promote prosperity and peace. That Obama is not such a statesman reflects less on him and more on America. Our leaders reflect back to us the state of our collective consciousness; what we see in that reflection is a decent, well-spoken, but clueless American public. Americans need to believe again in principles that promote peace and prosperity. When we do, our leaders will follow.

Obama may say stupid things, but he is not a stupid man. However, without time honored principles, values, and purpose to guide behavior, anyone behaves stupidly. President Obama is no exception. Actions that are unprincipled, not guided by timeless values and a higher purpose, inevitably lead to adverse consequences.

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