Obama’s Truthiness

President’s fiery speech on economy, budget riddled with misleading statements, contradictions, elisions, and distortions

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• April 4, 2012 5:00 am


President Obama’s fiery, partisan attack on Republicans before a crowd of laughing reporters Tuesday was riddled with misleading statements, contradictions, and elisions.

In a speech delivered at the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention in Washington, D.C., the president slammed House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s (R., Wis.) latest budget proposal as "thinly veiled Social Darwinism" that is "antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility"—a budget that sharply reduces federal spending on education, research, energy, and infrastructure.

In doing so, however, Obama displayed a questionable sense of how the Congressional budget process works.

"Ryan’s budget does not outline specific spending cuts because that’s not what budgets do," a Republican aide told the Washington Free Beacon. "That’s up to the Appropriations Committees. The president knows that, but he’s willfully distorting the record."

Obama also criticized Ryan for not specifying which tax breaks and loopholes he would eliminate as part of the comprehensive, revenue-neutral tax reform proposal in his budget.

"The Republicans in Congress refuse to list a single tax loophole they are willing to close," he said. "Not one."

But specific tax reforms are not typically included in Congressional budgets either, as the House Ways and Means Committee must author them.

The president also mischaracterized Ryan’s proposal to transition Medicare into a market-oriented "premium support" program, calling it a "voucher plan" that will "end Medicare as we know it."

Former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles, who chaired Obama’s deficit commission in 2010, recently said that it is "really unfair" to describe Ryan’s proposal as a "voucher plan."

The fact-checking website awarded "Lie of the Year" in 2011 to the oft-repeated Democratic claim that Republicans are attempting to "end Medicare."

Obama also questioned Ryan’s commitment to reducing the deficit, dismissing his budget as a "Trojan horse designed as a deficit reduction plan."

"Absolutely we have to get serious about the debt," Obama said. "But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—there has to be some balance."

That claim, according to another Republican aide, is an egregious distortion of reality.

"The premise of Obama’s speech is that ‘I have a plan to reduce the deficit and the Republicans have a plan to reduce the deficit. The difference is I reduce the deficit by raising taxes on the super, super wealthy and they reduce the deficit by slashing benefits cruelly for everyone else,’" the aide said. "The problem with that is that it’s factually untrue. There is no deficit reduction in the president’s plan."

Under Obama’s proposal, federal spending would rise from $3.8 trillion in 2013 to $5.8 trillion in 2022, an increase of 53 percent. Obama plans to spend a total of $47 trillion over the next decade, adding a cumulative $6.7 trillion to the federal budget deficit.

If enacted, the president’s plan would increase the debt held by the public—the amount owed by American taxpayers—from $12.6 trillion to $19.4 trillion over the same period. That is a 54 percent increase.

As a share of GDP, the public debt is projected to increase from 74.2 percent to 76.5 percent by the end of the 10-year budget window.

The Office of Management and Budget noted that "most of the net budgetary impact"—meaning deficit reduction—of the president’s plan comes in the form of about $2 trillion worth of higher taxes.

As analysts at the Senate Budget Committee have noted, the president’s proposed tax increases would have little net effect on the deficit because the added revenue is used primarily to finance more spending.

Obama sounded a note of optimism at one point in his speech, describing the fiscal challenges the county faces as "eminently solvable" compared with those of other nations.

"The kinds of challenges [other countries] face fiscally are so much more severe than anything that we confront," he said.

Recent data suggests otherwise, however. Analysts at the Senate Budget Committee recently calculated that U.S. debt per capita is larger than that of Europe’s most financially distressed countries, including Greece.

Using the most recent data available from the International Monetary Fund, the analysts calculated that U.S. debt per capita is nearly $45,000, or approximately 15 percent higher than that of Greece ($38,937), and more than double that of Portugal ($19,989).

Under President Obama’s fiscal year 2013 budget, U.S. debt per capita is projected to reach $75,000.

Many of the reports on the president’s remarks pointed out that it was an explicitly partisan and campaign-oriented speech.

Obama even singled out GOP president frontrunner Mitt Romney by name, slamming him for calling Ryan’s budget "marvelous."

It was a marked departure from comments the president made just one day earlier, in which he claimed to be "above the fray" of the Republican primary race.

"It’s still primary season for the Republican Party," Obama told reporters Monday at the White House. "I will cut folks some slack for now because they’re still trying to get their nomination."

Throughout the speech, Obama made a series of dubious and misleading comparisons.

For example, he likened himself to Ronald Reagan, citing the Republican president’s willingness to bargain with congressional Democrats by raising taxes in exchange for a promise of future spending cuts.

"Ronald Reagan, who, as I recall, is not accused of being a tax-and-spend socialist, understood repeatedly that when the deficit started to get out of control, that for him to make a deal he would have to propose both spending cuts and tax increases," Obama said. "Did it multiple times. He could not get through a Republican primary today."

But Reagan came to regret the trade-off, writing: "The Democrats reneged on their pledge [to cut spending] and we never got those cuts."

The current failure of the two parties to come to an agreement on fiscal issues, Obama charged, was largely due to the GOP—"a party that will brook no compromise"—and its refusal to agree to his positions.

"I think it’s important to remember that the position I’m taking now on the budget and host of other issues—if we had been having this discussion 20 years ago or even 15 years ago—would have been considered a squarely centrist position," he said. "What’s changed is the center of the Republican Party."

While welcoming the debate over the size and role of government as "one of the most important debates that we can have," Obama suggested that the "radical vision" promoted by Republicans is unpatriotic.

"We have to think about what is required to preserve the American dream for future generations," he said. "This is not a partisan feeling. This isn’t a Democratic or Republican idea. It’s patriotism."

Obama offered a slightly contradictory view of patriotism when he was running for president in 2008. He said then that the $4 trillion in debt accumulated under President George W. Bush was "irresponsible" and "unpatriotic."

According to White House projections, by the end of his first term in office, President Obama will have added $5.7 trillion to the national debt, more than any president in history.