WASHINGTON — Pundits are declaring Barack Obama’s speech to Congress was “Reaganesque” in style and tone.
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And it’s true: He is a “Great Communicator.”
But Obama is channeling Ronald Reagan in a more profound sense. Like Reagan, his promises are grand – and his budget is wishful thinking. Like Reagan, he’s betting that arithmetic matters less than inspiration.
At a similar spot in a different time – a deep recession in the twilight of the Cold War, 1981 – Reagan promised to double defense spending, cut taxes sharply and balance the budget. The plan was an impossible pipe dream. And yet Reagan’s optimism helped lift the country out of its funk and restart the economy.
But there was a cost.
We began the process of uncoupling federal spending from a sense of responsibility to future generations.
I’m wondering if the same thing is about to happen now.
The president is vowing to reform and vastly expand health care, to renew education, to remake the energy and auto industries, and to save the banking system. Oh, and let’s not forget: to end the recession.
He’s going to do all this and, at the same time, cut the deficit in half by 2013. He says, his budget will be a new model of candid “transparency” – unlike all of those fiction-filled budgets of the past.
I don’t think I’m being unduly cynical to wonder if it’s possible.
I believe that he believes he can make “hard choices” and root out “waste, fraud and abuse” and eliminate all those “unnecessary” programs and abolish the profligate use of congressional earmarks. I believe he believes that there will be enough peace in Mesopotamia and what used to be Persia to save much of the tens of billions we have spent in fighting wars there.
I also believe that the Washington Nationals will win the pennant.
Obama has a rationale for what he is proposing: that we need to spend heavily now to produce expanding wealth for the next “American Century.”
In that sense, his refusal to furl the flag of American ambition is not only laudable but also necessary. Hope is who we are and what we do. We need to believe – indeed, the world needs to believe – that “We will emerge stronger than before.”
So rather than curtailing our goals in the midst of a crisis, Obama insists on expanding them. He is a striking mix of the cautious and the bold, a personally conservative family man, wary of sweeping ideologies, yet convinced that the most pragmatic thing he can do for the country is to aim for and promise the moon.
But try to enumerate those promises as we wait for the new budget he is about to release.
We are going to get serious about “health care reform” – a process that initially, his budget director told me, is going to cost money before it has a chance (but not a certainty) of saving any. We are going to get our college-graduation rates back up to world-leading levels by 2020. We are going to find a cure for cancer.
And more. We will “double the supply of renewable energy in the next three years.” Soon we will lay “thousands of miles of new power lines.” We will make sure “every child has access to a complete and competitive education from the day they are born to the day they begin a career.” We are going to create a “retooled, re-imagined auto industry that can compete and win.” Government will “save or create” 3.5 million jobs in the next two years.
And then there is the ever-growing economic rescue plan.
Almost in passing, Obama dropped some news into the speech on the bank-rescue front. Even though Congress already has voted $700 billion to shore up the credit system, the rescue “probably” will require “more than we have already set aside.” Given the continued deterioration of global banks and bad actors such as AIG, we could be talking hundreds of billions more.
We will soon find out how President Obama proposes to do all of this without making theoretical national bankruptcy a reality.
The fact is, our indebtedness is reaching levels unseen since World War II, but unlike then, we are not the sole manufacturing and marketing power in the free world. We have competition.
We are the world’s “reserve” trading currency, the rise of the euro and the yen notwithstanding. The experts that I talk to say the basic problem is not that there are too many dollars in the world, but that no one in the private sector is willing to invest them — so Washington has to print more and spend them on its own.
Can that process continue indefinitely? I don’t think so.
And I bet that Barack Obama doesn’t really think so either.
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