Posted in America, Politics, tagged America, Biking Brewer, Bureaucracy, Bureaucrats, Internal Revenue Service, IRS, Politics, President Obama, Salon on May 14, 2013 |
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When my friend the Biking Brewer recommends something to read, I take notice — and not just because he is accomplished at creating fine malt beverages and has a discriminating sense of Belgian ales.
The BB sent along a link to this article from Salon, entitled When the IRS targeted liberals, that seeks to add a little context to the current story about the IRS actions with respect to conservative groups. President Obama has called the IRS actions “outrageous” and he’s right about that — but the Salon article usefully points out that the IRS has been embroiled in political issues before.
The key point here is not which groups are being targeted by the IRS, or who is the President at the time the targeting occurs, but rather the fact that IRS employees think they have the right to target specific groups at all. Our federal government has become so colossal in size, and so removed from interaction with average citizens, that many government employees think they can do just about whatever they damn well please because they are from the government and, well, they just know better than we do.
This isn’t a political issue — or , at least, it shouldn’t be. When agencies like the IRS can become politicized, no one at any point on the political spectrum is safe. The question is how to change the culture of these bureaucratic leviathans, where employees have jobs for life and have little accountability to anyone who isn’t their direct line supervisor. Shrinking the size of the bureaucracies, and establishing performance standards that don’t give every employee a lifetime job, would be a good place to start.
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Posted in America, Politics, tagged America, Douglas Shulman, Internal Revenue Service, IRS, Patriots, Politics, President Obama, Tea Party on May 13, 2013 |
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The Internal Revenue Service admits that its agents engaged in “inappropriate” targeting of certain conservative political groups and has apologized — but there seems to be a lot more to the story.
Some people in the IRS decided that groups with “tea party” and “patriot” in their names should be given additional scrutiny, to see whether they were acting in ways inconsistent with their tax-exempt status. About 300 groups received the scrutiny. The IRS says that low-level employees were responsible and that, when more senior officials learned about it months later, the practice was stopped. However, it now appears that the IRS simply adopted new criteria that focused on “political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding Government, educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, social economic reform movement.” That doesn’t really seem much better, does it?
This story is disturbing on many levels. First, when individual IRS agents can target groups because of their politics, that should be troubling to everyone — regardless of their political views. When people are given the authority to act on behalf of the IRS, we expect that authority to be exercised responsibly, not politically. If IRS agents can agree to look at groups that have “patriot” in their names, what criteria might they use under the next Administration?
Second, where were the supervisors? How much unbridled discretion do individual IRS agents possess? Didn’t some manager notice a pattern in what the agents were doing and realize they were targeting groups on a political basis? The actions of the agents seem to contradict the statements made by the former IRS commissioner, Douglas Shulman, in testimony to Congress, and the IRS response contends that knowledge of what was happening was limited to people multiple levels below Shulman. So, the IRS defense seems to be that it is so bureaucratic that the Commissioner isn’t told about what is actually happening on the ground! That’s not very comforting, either.
In his recent remarks at the Ohio State University, President Obama encouraged graduates to reject cynicism and decline to listen to “voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems.” This IRS story is precisely the kind of story that breeds such cynicism. When IRS agents can target groups for political reasons, the IRS Commissioner denies that such targeting is occurring, and the IRS defends the truth of those denials because the agents involved were too far down the chain for the Commissioner to notice, perhaps a little cynicism is in order.
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Posted in College, Columbus, Ohio, Politics, tagged College, Columbus, Ohio, Politics, President Obama, The Ohio State University on May 5, 2013 |
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Today President Obama is in town to deliver the commencement address at the Ohio State University graduation ceremony. He will be the third sitting President to address OSU graduates.
It’s like old times — or, at least, it’s like the run-up to the 2012 election, when the President and Mitt Romney and Joe Biden and Paul Ryan and their minions seemingly were somewhere in Ohio every day. Since then, Ohio has dropped off the political map a bit, and that is fine by me. It’s been nice to return to our daily lives and get to the point where a visit by the President is once again a big deal, rather than a tiresome cause of another pre-election traffic snarl.
I’m envious of the graduating students, and their parents, who get to hear the President today. I don’t remember anything about the speech given when I got my diploma from The Ohio State University in March 1980, although I have a vague recollection that the commencement address was an delivered by a female educator from a Midwestern university. Her remarks left no impression on me, one way or the other. I’m guessing that hearing President Obama is something that today’s graduates won’t soon forget.
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Posted in America, Politics, tagged America, IRAs, Politics, President Obama, retirement, Retirement accounts, taxes, The Ant and the Grasshopper on April 8, 2013 |
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The Obama Administration’s budget is due this week. According to reports, one of the President’s proposals will be to limit how much Americans can keep in IRAs and tax-preferred retirement accounts.
The proposal is being sold as a way to generate revenue — $9 billion over a decade — but also to achieve greater “fairness” in the tax code. One of those faceless, nameless “senior administration officials” who are always quoted in these articles says that those pesky wealthy Americans can “accumulate many millions of dollars in these accounts, substantially more than is needed to fund reasonable levels of retirement saving.” Under the proposal, a taxpayer’s tax-preferred retirement account could not finance more than $205,000 per year of retirement, or about $3 million this year.
Interesting, isn’t it? The government allows tax-preferred accounts to encourage taxpayers to save for retirement, and the programs actually work. For decades millions of Americans have been patiently putting money away and investing it, hoping to have a pleasant retirement after years of hard work. Now an unelected bureaucrat has presumed to decide what constitutes “reasonable levels of retirement saving.” And while $3 million is more than most of us have in our accounts, let’s not kid ourselves: once the government concludes it can decide what a “reasonable” retirement looks like, no one’s savings are safe. With the government’s insatiable appetite for revenue, what’s to keep them from deciding that, say, $50,000 per year of retirement is all you really need?
I’m all for getting our federal budget in balance, and although $9 billion isn’t a lot, I think every little bit helps. But this proposal seems terribly ill-advised. It targets people who have sacrificed and saved and are trying to plan for the future — in effect punishing qualities that we should be encouraging. It’s as if, in the tale of the ant and the grasshopper, the government decided it wasn’t fair for the hard-working ant to keep the fruits of his labor and required him to share equally with that indolent, fun-loving grasshopper. The problem is that, after a while, the ants are going to get the message and take up the fiddle, too.
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Posted in America, Politics, World, tagged America, Congress, France, Jerome Cahuzac, Political Double Standards, Politics, President Obama, World on April 5, 2013 |
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France has seen the latest outbreak of the politician’s double standard. It’s a story as old as politics itself. It goes like this: the politicians decide that, for the good of the country, it’s important to enact some new, typically painful law or regulation of private behavior. The politicians also decide, of course, that it’s equally important that they not be bothered with compliance.
This week Jerome Cahuzac, the former French minister who was responsible for prosecuting tax evasion, finally admitted he had a secret bank account in Switzerland and had been lying about it. His admission came two weeks after he resigned following reports that he was funneling funds to the account to avoid the harsh taxes the French government has levied and after Cahuzac had strenuously denied having the account. Now he says he is “devastated by remorse” and begs forgiveness. “Devastated by remorse?” Or, embarrassed that he was caught in a colossal lie and thought he could get away with avoiding the law that applied to everyone else?
In America, we see this kind of behavior from our political classes all the time. Congress passes laws that regulate the activities in every workplace except congressional offices. Politicians lecture us about global warming and not relying on fossil fuels then fly on gas-guzzling chartered jets rather than rub elbows with the great unwashed on standard commercial flights. Presidents and Vice Presidents tell us we need to tighten our belts, but enjoy lavish and repeated vacations on the taxpayers’ dime.
What’s sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander — period.
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How foolish is managing the federal budget through the across-the-board “sequestration” process? The federal judicial system provides a good illustration of the chaotic lunacy that prevails when the President and Members of Congress fail to do their jobs and enact thoughtful, considered budgets.
From a budgeting standpoint, the judiciary is unique. Unlike other agencies and entities, it doesn’t operate grant programs or distribute benefit checks or buy advertising to discourage drunk driving or promulgate regulations. Instead, it exists solely to resolve disputes and try those accused of federal crimes. Its budget is spent largely on people — on judges and their law clerks, bailiffs and court reporters, docket clerks and security personnel — who make the system function smoothly.
Sequestration will require $350 million in cuts to the federal judicial system. Because federal judges are appointed for life and will be paid regardless of how fiscally irresponsible the President and Congress may be, the cuts that sequestration brings will fall disproportionately on the other people who are part of the process. As a result, court security operations will be impaired, federal oversight of those free on bond prior to trial and those paroled from federal prisons will be reduced, and jury trials and bankruptcy proceedings will be delayed due to lack of funds — among other consequences.
A capable court system is one of the bedrock requirements of a free, well-ordered society. The role of federal courts has become increasingly important as new regulations are produced and challenged, as new federal crimes are created, and as courts are increasingly viewed as the ultimate arbiter of all manner of disputes. Why, then, should federal courts be subject to the same across-the-board budgeting treatment as federal agencies and programs whose purpose is much less fundamental to the proper functioning of government and society?
The President and Congress need to start doing their jobs.
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Posted in America, Politics, tagged America, Attorney General, Constitution, Drone Strikes, Eric Holder, Filibuster, John Brennan, Politics, President Obama, Rand Paul, Unmanned Drones on March 7, 2013 |
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Yesterday Kentucky Senator Rand Paul staged an old-fashioned filibuster on the Senate floor. Paul held the floor for almost 13 hours until the urgent call of nature caused him to yield the floor at about 1 a.m. this morning.
The target of Senator Paul’s filibuster was the nomination of John Brennan to lead the Central Intelligence Agency — but the broader target was the Obama Administration’s drone program. Attorney General Eric Holder has refused to rule out the possibility that the President could lawfully order drone strikes on American citizens on American soil under extraordinary circumstances, such as a terrorist attack akin to September 11. Paul considers that position frightening and an affront to due process rights of American citizens, and that’s why he took to the Senate floor.
I don’t agree with Senator Paul on many issues, but I applaud his use of the filibuster to draw attention to the drone issue, which I think has largely flown under the radar of the American public. We need to have a national discussion about our use of drones, both in America and in foreign countries. We should fully consider the costs and benefits of the use of drones overseas, and whether we think it is prudent for the President to have the unilateral authority to authorize drones to kill suspected terrorists in other, sovereign nations with which we are not at war. There is no doubt that the drones have been effective weapons in the fight against al Qaeda, but are they being used too frequently and too indiscriminately? The strikes have injured and killed apparently innocent civilians and deeply damaged the United States’ reputation in several countries. Is it worth it? That’s not a question that the President, alone, should be answering.
Domestically, do we really want to give the President the power to order the killing of American citizens in the United States — without a judge or jury or a finding of guilt by any other entity or branch of government? Reserving for the President the right to do so in “extraordinary circumstances” seems like an ill-defined limit on presidential power. Supporters of President Obama might trust him to make wise decisions with such power, but what about the next President, and the President after that? Presidential power runs with the office, not with its occupant. Gradual accretions of presidential power never seem to get reversed, they just continue to accumulate and accumulate until the president seems less like a chief executive of a three-branch government and more like a tyrant.
I’m not ready to yield the power to the President to order drone strikes on American citizens on American soil just yet. I hope Senator Paul’s old-fashioned, bladder-busting filibuster causes Congress, and the American public, to pay more attention to this important issue that addresses broad questions of individual liberty, due process, and how our government should work.
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Posted in America, Politics, tagged America, Bob Woodward, Congress, Journalists, Politicians, Politics, President Obama, Reporters, Washington D.C., Watergate on March 1, 2013 |
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Every once in a while we hear about a story that gives us a good sense of the warped world of politicians and journalists in Washington, D.C. The recent snit between Bob Woodward and the White House is one of those stories.
In case you missed this earth-shattering tale, Bob Woodward — the Watergate reporter who has since made a career out of writing turgid, insider-based accounts of Washington events — was getting ready to write about “sequestration,” the Rube Goldberg process by which $85 billion in “automatic” spending cuts will be made today because our current President can’t lead and our current Congress can’t legislate. When Woodward told a White House aide his view on the genesis of the “sequestration” concept and the President’s approach to it, he says the aide yelled at him for a half hour, then sent Woodward an email that stated, among other things, that Woodward would “regret” staking out his position on the issue. Woodward, miffed, disclosed the exchange, which he saw as a veiled threat.
What does this tell us about Washington, D.C.? It tells us that the White House is focused more on spin than solving problems and is amazingly thin-skinned about criticism. “Sequestration” — the implementation of “automatic” spending cuts that were consciously designed to be so draconian and blunderbuss that they would force the parties to sit down and reach an agreement — is an idiotic way for our government to operate. I don’t blame the White House for trying to blur its role in putting such lunacy into place. The Democrat-controlled Senate, and the Republican-controlled House, are engaging in similar juvenile finger-pointing. The notion of accepting responsibility and reaching agreement on a rational approach evidently is too adult a concept to hold sway in the weird world of Washington.
But what of Bob Woodward? He received a dressing down from some presidential flunky and then got an email he thought was ill-considered. Big deal! I guess the politicians and reporters in D.C. are so chummy that a few strong words are deeply wounding and cause for scandal. Maybe that’s our problem. The reporters and the politicians in the D.C. fishbowl are so used to stroking each other that real reporting never gets done and real accountability never gets assigned. I’d be perfectly happy if more politicians and aides with bloated egos did some yelling at reporters tracking down the news, and more reporters shrugged off the tirades and printed what they and their editors decided was the real story.
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Posted in America, Movies, Politics, tagged America, Celebrities, First Ladies, Michelle Obama, Movies, Oscars, Politicians, Politics, President Obama on February 26, 2013 |
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On Sunday’s Oscars broadcast, First Lady Michelle Obama was the surprise presenter of the award for Best Picture. What isn’t a surprise is that, in the wake of the Academy Awards show, some people have criticized her appearance as frivolous and not befitting her role as First Lady.
I’m heartily sick and tired of this kind of sanctimonious stuff. I don’t see anything wrong with a First Lady participating in the Academy Awards broadcast if she wants to do so (although I’m not sure that, if I were the First Gentleman, I’d want to be part of the phony, kissy-face Hollywood scene). It’s not as if Michelle Obama — or any other First Lady — is expected to be pondering weighty affairs of state at all hours of the day and night. Even her husband, who unlike Michelle Obama was elected to his current leadership position, is not begrudged an occasional vacation, golf outing, or basketball game. Why should anyone care if the First Lady wants to spend an hour of her time appearing on an awards show?
People who think First Ladies should act like Mamie Eisenhower are kidding themselves. The line between politicians and celebrities has long since been blurred to non-existence. Presidents and presidential candidates and First Ladies have been appearing on talk shows for years now; how is the Oscars broadcast materially different? Hollywood is one of America’s most successful industries, one that employs a lot of people and generates a lot of income. Would people object if the First Lady presented an award to, say, the Teacher of the Year or recognized the owner of a successful business that opened a new plant? If not, why object to the First Lady’s acknowledgement of the film industry?
In our struggling country, Michelle Obama’s decision to present the Best Picture Oscar is the least of our concerns. If the First Lady wants to share a bit in the glitz and glamor of Oscar Night, I’m not troubled by her decision. Now, can we start talking about the real, important issues of the day?
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Posted in America, Humor, Politics, Technology, tagged America, Banality, Deep Thoughts With Jack Handey, Humor, Politics, President Obama, Technology, Tweets, Twitter on February 16, 2013 |
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Twitter may be good for many things, but thoughtful political discourse isn’t one of them. The 140-character limitation on Twitter messages is just too restrictive. As a result, many political “tweets” seem idiotic.
Consider this tweet that apparently came from President Obama yesterday: “RT if you agree: It’s time for Congress to work with the President and ensure that hard work leads to a decent living for every American.” “RT” means “re-tweet,” so this little nugget of wisdom no doubt is making its way around the Twitterverse, being re-tweeted by the many supporters of the President. But, what does the message actually mean? Would the meaning be any different if it read: “RT if you agree: It’s time for the President to work with Congress and ensure that hard work leads to a decent living for every American” ? Could there possibly be a more banal message? Does anyone, at any point on the political spectrum, actually disagree with the sentiment that people who work hard should earn a decent living?
No doubt there’s more to it. Maybe the banality is intended to support an effort to increase the minimum wage, for example. But couldn’t it just as easily support a tax cut, so those hard-working Americans get to keep more of their money and enjoy a “decent living”? In fact, the trite tweet could be read as boosting almost any economic legislation, with the exception of the dreaded Prevent a Decent Living for Hard-Working Americans Act. The utterly generic nature of the tweet, combined with the lack of any context, robs the message of any real meaning.
I certainly hope that the President himself isn’t spending time tweeting; he’s got better things to do. I suggest, however, that he tell his ghosttweeter to leave the political commentary to actual speeches, where some explanation can occur. Otherwise, the President is going to come across like a bad parody of the “Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey” that used to appear on Saturday Night Live.
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President Obama gives his State of the Union speech tonight. The Washington Post is reporting that we won’t be hearing much about debt reduction.
In fact, the President believes that our goal should be to “stabilize” the debt, rather than actually reducing it. In short, he’s just aiming to slow the incredibly rapid rise in our debt to a slower rate of increase. Under the President’s approach, our debt would continue to grow — just at the same rate as the economy generally.
Moreover, the President says that, with the tax increases that took effect recently, we’re more than halfway toward the goal of debt stabilization. Of course, such confident statements about progress toward “debt stabilization” are based upon long-term forecasts about how the economy will perform, how it will be affected by the tax increases, and other guesswork. How accurate have the Administration’s economic predictions been over the past four years, and why should we believe them this time around?
It’s disappointing that President Obama thinks we should simply accept our huge existing debt and a scenario in which that debt continues to grow, and grow, and grow until the end of time. He’s like the employee who sets minimal workplace goals — say, 50 percent attendance — to ensure he can ultimately say they were accomplished. Actually cutting spending and achieving a balanced budget is hard work; reframing the objective to be “stabilization” of a debt that will continue forever sets a much easier target. And perhaps the President believes that if he says it often enough, people will believe it really means something.
The problem, of course, is that more debt is more debt, and interest on the debt must be paid. In 2012, the U.S. paid $220 billion in net interest on the debt. As our “stabilized” debt grows, our interest payments will necessarily grow as well, and if investors begin to grow skittish about our mountain of debt and being to insist on higher interest payments (which is what has happened in Europe) the interest component of our budget will grow faster still. Erskine Bowles, one of the chairs of the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Commission that made recommendations the President ignored, says our interest payments could reach $1 trillion annually by 2020. That’s not just $1 trillion that could be used for other purposes — or that could remain in the pockets of taxpayers — it’s also simply not sustainable.
So, let the President wave the white flag on debt reduction and try to convince the credulous that “debt stabilization” will do the trick. I’m not buying the snake oil.
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Posted in America, Politics, World, tagged Afghanistan, America, Benghazi, Hillary Clinton, Iraq, John Kerry, Middle East, North Korea, Pakistan, Politics, President Obama, Russia, Secretary of State, State Department, Syria, U.S. State Department, World on February 5, 2013 |
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Hillary Clinton has stepped down from President Obama’s Cabinet. After battling health problems, she has been replaced as Secretary of State by John Kerry.
With so much of international diplomacy conducted behind closed doors, it’s very difficult to gauge the performance of any Secretary of State until the years pass and secrets become public. In Clinton’s case, we know that the United States has managed to avoid become embroiled in any new wars during her tenure and that our roles in Iraq and Afghanistan are finally winding down. We also know that efforts to “reset” relations with the Russians haven’t made much progress, North Korea, Iran, and Syria remain rogue states, and Pakistan seems to be teetering on the brink of chaos. And the Holy Grail of American diplomacy — brokering a conclusive Middle East peace deal — eluded Secretary Clinton just as it eluded every one of her predecessors. Her legacy as Secretary of State may be dependent, in significant part, upon what historians conclude about how, if at all, her stewardship affected the takeover of the American compound in Benghazi and the killing of the Ambassador and three other Americans.
What we can also say about Secretary Clinton, however, is that she was a good soldier for the President. She didn’t make any trouble, didn’t try to upstage him, and by all accounts worked hard at her job and developed good relations with the career diplomats at the State Department. She didn’t seem to let her ego get in the way — and in these days of celebrity politicians, that’s saying a lot. When John Kerry’s tenure at the State Department has ended, I wonder whether we will be able to say the same thing about him?
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Today, as America celebrates Martin Luther King’s birthday, President Barack Obama will be publicly sworn in for his second term. The President officially took the oath of office yesterday, in a small ceremony in the White House Blue Room presided over by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
Historically, second terms have not been kind to American presidents. President George W. Bush limped home, dogged by poor poll numbers, Hurricane Katrina, the ongoing effect of two wars, and an economy that was plunging into recession. His experience was an extreme example of the problems that typically beset Presidents during their second term — falling popularity, scandals, recessions and other economic problems, and an almost immediate lame duck status. The lame duck problem has become even worse recently, with the focus on the next presidential election beginning earlier and earlier each cycle and the haggard President who seems to have been in office forever being compared, unfavorably, to the fresh new faces vying to replace him. By the end of their second terms, most Presidents seem almost irrelevant.
It’s not difficult to see storm clouds on the horizon for President Obama, either. The American economy continues to struggle and unemployment remains high. If America slips back into an official recession, the President will take the blame. There is no consensus on how to deal with the nation’s unsustainable budget deficits, and a tough fight looms with budget hawks on increasing the debt ceiling. In Europe, many countries are teetering on the fiscal edge. The world is still a dangerous place, with potential flashpoints to be found across Africa, the middle East, and Asia. And those are just the readily apparent problems. Recent history also teaches us that Presidents must also expect the unexpected, and frequently it is the unpredicted crisis that is the most wounding.
I disagree with President Obama on many things, but I wish him well as he begins his second term. He is our President, and America needs successful leadership. I pray that he finds it within himself to work with his political opponents and actually tackle our problems rather than letting them slide. I hope that he discovers that lame duck status can be liberating, and that being freed from having to stand for reelection allows you to make the difficult, often unpopular decisions that will be necessary to resolve our budget and spending woes.
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It’s been at least two weeks since the impending “fiscal cliff” disaster was avoided at the last minute. That means it’s time for our grossly dysfunctional, leaderless government to stumble into crisis mode, again.
This time, the deadlines are in March and April, and one of the key issues is the debt limit. The debt limit now stands at $16.4 trillion — that $16,400,000,000,000 — but that staggering sum is not enough for our debt-ridden, spending-obsessed, deficit spending-addicted country. At a press conference yesterday, President Obama said Republicans should just raise the debt limit, without insisting on spending cuts. We’re not a “deadbeat nation,” he said, and the full faith and credit of the United States should not be a “bargaining chip.” If agreement on raising the debt ceiling can’t be reached, he says, Social Security and veterans checks might be delayed.
It seems awfully early in the game to play the Social Security card and scare seniors and veterans. Unfortunately, they aren’t the only ones who are frightened by another crisis brewing. This morning, global markets are stalling due to concerns about the debt limit, and the ratings agency Fitch says if the debt ceiling issue isn’t resolved promptly America’s credit rating could drop.
At his press conference, the President said he was willing to talk about spending cuts to stabilize the debt, but that such spending cuts should be discussed separately. We’ve heard that song before, but cuts never get made, programs never get eliminated, and trillion-dollar deficits go on and on. For all of his talk, talk, talk, the President has shown no willingness to take the courageous spending reduction steps that truly are needed to get our debt problems under control. Like Wimpy, the President would rather promise to pay us Tuesday for buying him that hamburger today. After four years, however, the bill hasn’t been paid, and there is no sign it will be paid.
I think Republicans have concluded that, deep down, President Obama would be perfectly comfortable to let the spending and big deficits continue until he leaves office, and that is exactly what will happen if he isn’t forced to sit down at the table and bargain. If the Republicans see the debt ceiling as a fail-safe means of forcing some hard negotiations with the President that produce real progress on federal spending and the deficit, the President has only himself to blame.
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