One other point about President Obama’s April 13 speech on fiscal policy struck me, and that was the whole question of time and timing.
The budget savings numbers cited by the President in his speech all were based on a 12-year period, rather than the 10-year period typically used in long-term budgeting. For example, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposed budget, which the President sharply criticized in his speech, uses a 10-year period. Why did the President use a 12-year period? Because he wanted to say that he proposed roughly as much in deficit reduction as the Ryan plan, and a lot of the “savings” anticipated by the President occurs at the end of his 12-year period. In my view, this is the kind of numbers gimmickry that shows a real lack of seriousness about the deficit issue.
Another interesting time and timing issue was raised when the President talked about a “failsafe” that would be part of his plan. The President stated: “But just to hold Washington — and to hold me — accountable and make sure that the debt burden continues to decline, my plan includes a debt failsafe. If, by 2014, our debt is not projected to fall as a share of the economy -– if we haven’t hit our targets, if Congress has failed to act -– then my plan will require us to come together and make up the additional savings with more spending cuts and more spending reductions in the tax code. That should be an incentive for us to act boldly now, instead of kicking our problems further down the road.”
I don’t follow this logic. The “failsafe,” whatever it will be, isn’t triggered until 2014 — three years from now, after the President’s first term has long since ended. Why would the possibility of actions in three years hold the President, or anyone else, “accountable” now, and why would it be “an incentive for [politicians] to act boldly now”? With an election looming on the near horizon, and the parties already bickering and name-calling about just about everything, why would a distant, post-election deadline have any impact at all? If a “debt failsafe” really is a good idea, how about invoking it now, so that voters can hold politicians “accountable” the way they should be held accountable in a democracy — through having to explain and justify their decisions in the election that is less than two years away?
President Obama’s fiscal policy is predicated on the notion that our continued deficits are a serious problem that must be addressed. However, the time frames set at the end of his speech don’t seem to match the urgency expressed at the beginning of his speech. Instead, the President seems to want to defer making the tough decisions that should be made immediately, while at the same time using words like “accountability” that test well with focus groups. To me, that seems more like electioneering than leadership — and that is another reason why I found the President’s speech so disappointing.