How Obama is Failing to Defend His Budget

More

It's not easy for President Obama to defend a $1.6 trillion deficit, the largest nominal deficit in US history. But that is Obama's challenge as he sells his 2011 budget. He has to explain to Americans that he is concerned about the debt, even as he increases it tremendously. This "I hate doing this, but I have to" hand-wringing essentially amounts to admitting that you don't like your budget.

He's sending the wrong message.

In the past two weeks, Obama has said a few things that make me worried about his framing of the deficit. Like this, where he seems to call his own deficits a "terrible mistake":

We also continue to lay a new foundation for lasting growth, which is essential as well. Just as it would be a terrible mistake to borrow against our children's future to pay our way today, it would be equally wrong to neglect their future by failing to invest in areas that will determine our economic success in this new century.
 


Or this, where he reinforces the idea that his administration treats taxes like Monopoly money:

"We simply cannot continue to spend as if deficits don't have consequences, as if waste doesn't matter, as if the hard-earned tax money of the American people can be treated like Monopoly money."

Or this, where he makes the weird argument that the administration should be more penny-pinching during a recession, while all of his policies (and Keynesian economic theory) call for expanding government aid to states, businesses and individuals:

Families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same.

Here is what I'm hearing: "This is not my deficit. I don't like it at all. Deficits are terrible mistakes, and the government always treats your taxes like Monopoly money, and we really should be tightening our belts now by now." Obama sounds like his own budget's best critic!

I can't imagine this self-critical approach will win public support. One heuristic I use to gauge whether I think a framing device will work is: Can I imagine some bloke on the street repeating it with a news camera in his face? So: can I imagine a some self-described moderate independent say to a CNN camera, "I really respect Obama for admitting how much he despises all the numbers in his budget"? No, I cannot. Here's what I can imagine: "Did you hear about how horrible this budget and deficit is? Even the president hates it!"

What's the solution? Well, I'm working on that part. Right now the best idea I have is: Don't talk about the deficit as a historic deficit. Talk about it as a historic investment. Make the subject record unemployment relief, and record state relief, and record job spending, and record small business investments, and record tax cuts. Tell a positive story you want to defend rather than a negative story you want to apologize for. Obama likes to blame Bush and the recession for the deficit. Substantively, it's right. Politically, it looks like excuse-making. The average Americans thinks this is Obama's deficit. Obama needs to defend his own budget like it's, well, his own budget.

It's not easy for President Obama to defend a $1.6 trillion deficit, the largest nominal deficit in US history. But that is Obama's challenge as he sells his 2011 budget. He has to explain to Americans that he is concerned about the debt, even as he increases it tremendously. This "I hate doing this, but I have to" hand-wringing essentially amounts to admitting that you don't like your budget.

He's sending the wrong message.

In the past two weeks, Obama has said a few things that make me worried about his framing of the deficit. Like this, where he seems to call his own deficits a "terrible mistake":

We also continue to lay a new foundation for lasting growth, which is essential as well. Just as it would be a terrible mistake to borrow against our children's future to pay our way today, it would be equally wrong to neglect their future by failing to invest in areas that will determine our economic success in this new century.
 


Or this, where he reinforces the idea that his administration treats taxes like Monopoly money:

"We simply cannot continue to spend as if deficits don't have consequences, as if waste doesn't matter, as if the hard-earned tax money of the American people can be treated like Monopoly money."

Or this, where he makes the weird argument that the administration should be more penny-pinching during a recession, while all of his policies (and Keynesian economic theory) call for expanding government aid to states, businesses and individuals:

Families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same.

Here is what I'm hearing: "This is not my deficit. I don't like it at all. Deficits are terrible mistakes, and the government always treats your taxes like Monopoly money, and we really should be tightening our belts now by now." Obama sounds like his own budget's best critic!

I can't imagine this self-critical approach will win public support. One heuristic I use to gauge whether I think a framing device will work is: Can I imagine some bloke on the street repeating it with a news camera in his face? So: can I imagine a some self-described moderate independent say to a CNN camera, "I really respect Obama for admitting how much he despises all the numbers in his budget"? No, I cannot. Here's what I can imagine: "Did you hear about how horrible this budget and deficit is? Even the president hates it!"

What's the solution? Well, I'm working on that part. Right now the best idea I have is: Don't talk about the deficit as a historic deficit. Talk about it as a historic investment. Make the subject record unemployment relief, and record state relief, and record job spending, and record small business investments, and record tax cuts. Tell a positive story you want to defend rather than a negative story you want to apologize for. Obama likes to blame Bush and the recession for the deficit. Substantively, it's right. Politically, it looks like excuse-making. The average Americans thinks this is Obama's deficit. Obama needs to defend his own budget like it's, well, his own budget.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

'Stop Telling Women to Smile'

An artist's campaign to end sexual harassment on the streets of NYC.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Business

Just In