Obama's Promise to Halve the Deficit Was a Bad Idea

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The president's real error wasn't failing to make cuts as fast as he predicted. It was making any sort of pledge to begin with.

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Under fire from Republicans for a promise he won't be keeping about cutting the deficit, President Obama might consider emulating Franklin D. Roosevelt, who found himself in a very similar bind eight decades ago. In October 1932, Roosevelt told a crowd in Pittsburgh that he would balance the budget and cut government spending by 25 percent in his first term. But when he got in office, the only way to combat the Depression was to increase spending.

It was the right course for governing. But it presented Roosevelt with a real political challenge when he was running for a second term and returning to Pennsylvania. He asked speechwriter Sam Rosenman how to handle questions about the broken promise.

"Deny you were ever in Pittsburgh," responded Rosenman.

Today, as Obama tries to explain his own pledge "to cut the deficit we inherited in half by the end of my first term in office," he might be tempted to just deny. The only problem with that is that he made the pledge not as a candidate but as president. And it came in the East Room of the White House at the opening of his Fiscal Responsibility Summit on Feb. 23, 2009. It would be a little hard to deny he was ever in the White House.

But he might want to try what Roosevelt actually did. He didn't deny he made the promise. Instead, he went to Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and devoted a 1936 campaign speech to the reasons why the budget remained out of balance. "In those dark days," he said, "between us and a balanced budget stood millions of needy Americans, denied the promise of a decent American life. To balance our budget in 1933 or 1934 or 1935 would have been a crime against the American people... We should have had to set our face against human suffering with callous indifference."

Or maybe Obama can start a new and badly need trend. It just may be time for presidential candidates to stop offering specific dates when the federal budget will be balanced or the deficit pared by a certain percentage. With the exception of Walter Mondale in 1984 and both candidates in 2000 -- when there was a surplus -- all post-war presidential candidates have succumbed to the temptation. They all do it; and they almost all are wrong.

Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan promised to balance the budget by the end of their first terms. Neither did; the deficit more than doubled under Reagan. John Kerry said he'd cut the deficit in half at the end of his first term. John McCain said he'd need only one term. Bob Dole said he would have balance in six years. Bill Clinton is the only one who kept his promise. But he followed a rocky path, first saying he'd do it in five years, then in 10 years, only to end up doing it in six.

Today, Ron Paul says he'd do it by his third year in office. Newt Gingrich promises to do it in no more than 10 years. And Romney sees balance by 2021, one year longer than Rick Perry said he needed.

None can plausibly deny they ever were on the campaign trail. So, if a Republican wins, he almost certainly will find himself in the same position Obama is today -- trying to explain away a promise that should not have been made.

Image: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

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George E. Condon Jr.

George E. Condon Jr is a staff writer (White House) with National Journal.

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