By Philip Klein
Standard and Poor’s explanation for why it downgraded U.S. debt is written in such a way that it can be seized upon by all ideological stripes. The statement cites the unwillingness of Republicans to raise taxes and of Democrats to agree to entitlement cuts. And the rating agency’s discourse about the political dysfunction will provide column fodder for Washington pundits who long for the days when both parties would work together to reach compromises. But make no mistake, when all the dust settles, it will be difficult for President Obama to escape blame for this.
Defenders of Obama will attempt to pin the blame on his predecessor, President Bush, and on intransigent Tea Party radicals in the current Congress. But that would leave out the part in between. For his first two years in office, Obama’s party controlled both chambers of Congress – for part of that period, he had a filibuster proof majority in the Senate. During that time period, he and his fellow Democrats could have passed his supposedly ideal, long-term, deficit-reduction package -- one that represented a “balanced approach” between spending cuts and tax increases. It also could have delayed the deficit reduction for several years, so it wouldn’t have affected the current weak economy or the “investments” he considers crucial. Forget about actually accomplishing serious deficit reduction -- he didn’t even attempt it.
When Obama came into office, he argued that we needed deficit spending to boost the economy, so he passed a $800 billion stimulus package. Then, in one of his first supposed pivots to the deficit, he convened a ‘fiscal responsibility summit’ in February 2009. But that actually turned out to be part of a different pivot altogether. It was during that summit that then White House Budget Director Peter Orszag declared, “health care reform is entitlement reform.”
And so, for the next 13 months, Obama spent all of his energies trying to get health care legislation across the finish line. The end product was a plan that, according to both the Congressional Budget Office and actuary for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, did not bend the health care cost curve down. Let’s even set aside the argument over the accounting gimmicks that were employed to obtain a CBO score that showed modest deficit reduction. The reality is this: the law used money raised through tax hikes and Medicare cuts that otherwise would have been available for deficit reduction, to instead expand Medicaid by 18 million beneficiaries and create a massive new health care entitlement.
Of course, there’s more. After health care passed last March, Obama punted on the debt for the rest of the year as he awaited a report from his fiscal commission. He then ignored its recommendations and released a budget so ludicrous that within two months, it failed 0 to 97 in the Senate and he himself rejected it. He instead delivered a speech about his deficit reduction vision, which didn’t have enough details for the CBO to score. And then he spent the last few months arguing that he was prepared to offer Republicans a “grand bargain,” but to this day he hasn’t released details of this supposedly awesome deal that Republicans refused, beyond calculated leaks to favored reporters.
But there’s another reason why Obama won’t escape blame for this. Obama was elected president at a time when Americans felt the nation was in decline, and his central job was restore their faith that our best days were ahead of us, as President Reagan did after the Carter era. Whether you think he was dealt a poor hand or not, the bottom line is that the sense of decline has only deepened during the Obama presidency, and the first-ever downgrade of U.S. credit, whatever its ultimate financial implications, is yet another symbol of that decline.
Philip Klein writes for The Washinton Examiner