Paul Greenberg / March 13, 2009

In the Ninth Inning

What ever happened to Hope and Change, let alone Audacity? Was that threesome just a campaign slogan? Apparently so. Today’s challenges may be new, but the Obama administration decided to stick with the old federal budget, which has been in the works since last year – before the latest, steepest rise in unemployment, before the Panic of ‘08 gave way to the Recession of '09 … in short, before the Obama administration.

Why would it do that? Here’s the less than edifying word from Peter Orszag, the new president’s new man in charge of the budget. He explains that “fundamentally, the economy is weak….”

This is news? The question is what the administration intends to do about it. This week the command from the helm was: Steady as she sinks. Just keep on drifting on a tide of red ink.

The massive government debt being run up by various bailouts plus a $787-billion stimulus bill (will it prove all sail or just more dead weight?) is troublesome enough. But it’s not the size of the stimulus that troubles most – maybe it should have been even bigger – but its lack of focus. There doesn’t seem to be any clear, consistent, coherent strategy to the administration’s response to this deepening economic slump.

Back when this country was in the throes of a Great Depression, a president who believed in action – Franklin Roosevelt – changed course 180 degrees with a simple explanation: The time had come, he said, for Dr. Win-the-War to replace Dr. New Deal. The result: All that massive spending on tanks and planes and ammunition, and the massive war debt that went with it, didn’t just win the war; it finally ended the Depression.

The American people could accept that debt, and buy war bonds to finance it, and sacrifice in ways not just great and small but far beyond the mere material, because our very existence as a free nation was at stake. And, with it, the future of the free world.

What is the rationale for the Obama administration’s first and gigantic ($410 billion) budget? There doesn’t seem to be one except inertia. Or as Mr. Orszag explained, the budget for this year was already in the works, so (what th’ heck) why not stick with it?

So much for hope and change. And if this is audacity, what would be just plain old habit?

Some of us had hoped for a change of course or at least a better explanation for continuing on the old one. Why keep on doing the same thing (spend, spend, spend) without clear priorities and expect a different result?

In response, Peter Orszag offered an analogy from what used to be the national pastime: “This is like your relief pitcher coming in into the ninth inning and wanting to redo the whole game. Next year, we will be the starting pitcher, and the game is going to be completely different.”

Ah, yes, wait’ll next year! Isn’t that what Brooklyn Dodgers fans used to say  – every year? Besides, aren’t relievers sent in to save the game, turn it around, put out the fire … not just throw the same pitches that got the team in trouble in the first place?

Not everybody on the team is prepared to just go on repeating the same motions. To quote Evan Bayh, the Democratic senator from Indiana:

“Last week I was pleased to attend the president’s White House Fiscal Responsibility Summit. It’s about time we had a leader committed to addressing the deficit, and Mr. Obama deserves great credit for doing so. But what ultimately matters are not meetings or words, but actions. Those who vote for the omnibus this week – after standing with the president and pledging to slice our deficit in half last week – jeopardize their credibility.”

If the country is going to come out of this fiscal dive rather than prolong it, credibility is important in a leader. No credibility, no confidence. No confidence, no investing. And no investing, no long-term economic growth.

What ever happened to all those promises Barack Obama made during the campaign to reduce the deficit, avoid the kind of congressional earmarks that remain the bane of sound budgeting, and generally do the responsible thing when it comes to government spending? Only lip service to those goals remains.

Or as Senator Bayh put it, “Voters rightly demanded change in November’s election, but this approach to spending represents business as usual in Washington, not the voters’ mandate.”

Instead of narrowing the focus of economic policy to produce jobs, jobs, jobs – as John McCain and almost all his Republican colleagues in the Senate proposed – this $410-billion budget doesn’t seem to have any single aim at all; it just spends in all directions. And it comes on top of an equally feckless three-quarters-of-a-trillion-dollar spending bill that was called a stimulus but looked all too much like a vehicle for rewarding the Democrats’ favorite interests – from ACORN to the teachers’ unions.

What this administration needs to offer is more clarity, less confusion. More plan, less patronage. More investment, less ideology.


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