The Obama administration indicated yesterday that the President would call for a three-year freeze on discretionary spending as part of the State of the Union address tonight.  It’s official: he’s now just another politician, and not even a very good one.

Every President in modern memory, except one, has jumped up and down and insisted that the deficit be reduced.  (The only exception was Clinton: we were flush with the Peace Dividend and actually ran surpluses.)  And every President who jumped up and down about deficit reduction never actually accomplished it.

The freeze in discretionary spending affects less than $500 billion of a $3.5 trillion budget.  (Can’t anyone divide?  The press is reporting that the freeze affects 17% of the budget, but when I went to school, 500/3500 = 1/7 = about 14%!)  Of course, the sacred cows of defense and entitlements are off the table.  Projected savings from this measure in the first year are estimated to be $10 to $15 billion, or less than 0.5 %.  It’s like saying that I’ll balance my family budget by giving up magazines, books, and movies.

On the other hand, deficit spending (whether actual spending increases or tax cuts) is the government’s most useful tool for dealing with a bad economy.  The spending has to be chosen wisely, which didn’t happen with last year’s stimulus package (in which the Democratic Congress ran around like kids in a candy store).  Bad deficit spending is worse than flushing the money down the toilet, because the recipients of the money will have reason to expect more in the future. But good deficit spending (say, investments in infrastructure) can be genuinely useful.

More than I’m disappointed by the substance of the move, I’m disappointed that our President seems to be displaying no leadership at all.  He’s getting the buzz that people are worried about the deficits, so he’s serving up some old blather to suggest that people shouldn’t worry.

I wish President Obama would:

  • Pick a direction.  For all that I railed against President Bush, he at least did this part right.  If Obama wants to temper his decisions to make them more acceptable to the opposition, it should be done before taking the plans to the public.  Setting forth a big plan, and then conceding later, looks wishy-washy.
  • Articulate a clear vision of what he’s trying to do, going beyond the sound bites and addressing reasonable concerns from the other side.
  • Do NOT then throw the issue over the fence and let Congress hash out the details.  Architects don’t draw up plans and then say, “OK, my work is finished, it’s now the contractor’s job.”  They generally have a role in managing the construction project, keeping things on track, and fixing glitches that pop up.

Obama also disappointed me with his remark that he’d ‘rather be a really good one-term President, than a mediocre two-term President.’  The only way you can get to be a mediocre two-term President is to get re-elected, and for that you have to be a good one-term President.

Looking back, when was the last mediocre two-term President?  Not Clinton: he presided over peace and prosperity, as well as bringing us the ongoing drama of the impeachment that wasn’t.  Not Reagan: he helped end the Cold War.  Not Nixon: he didn’t serve two full terms, and he resigned in disgrace: definitely not mediocre.  Not Johnson: he brought us civil rights and Big Government: the latter was perhaps not a good thing, but still not mediocre.  (Johnson also didn’t serve two full terms.)  Maybe Eisenhower, but that was before I was born, so I can’t really say.

But I’ll grant the possibility that someone might get re-elected to the Presidency, then go to sleep, and end up a mediocre two-term President.  Unfortunately, the only sure methods of being a great one-term President without running the risk of being a mediocre two-term President are to either (1) refuse to run for re-election or (2) die in office.

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