A Cold Day in Washington

A Cold Day in Washington

A freeze on discretionary spending may poll well, but it endorses ignorance of how the federal government spends its money.


On the eve of the State of the Union address, word leaked that President Obama was going to call for a multiyear freeze on “nonsecurity discretionary spending,” in an apparent attempt to mollify independent voters anxious about the deficit. The reaction in the progressive blogosphere was fast and furious. “Barack Herbert Hoover Obama?” asked Brad DeLong on his blog (Grasping Reality With Opposable Thumbs), while Paul Krugman wrote a blog post titled “Obama Liquidates Himself” and others blasted the president as “lame,” an “idiot,” a leader with a “self-inflicted lobotomy.”

The anger is completely justified. I’ll leave aside the policy (short version: it’s criminally stupid). But let me talk about the politics. I’m sure that in the short term it polls well. Most voters don’t have a great grasp of what makes up the federal budget. The fact is that about two-thirds of what the government does is maintain the world’s largest security apparatus and provide social insurance for the elderly, both of which are exempted from the freeze. But thanks to decades of right-wing attacks on Big Government, many people think that most of what the government spends money on are things like food stamps and foreign aid.

That’s why this is so inexcusably insidious: because it uses the full power of the bully pulpit to reaffirm and endorse the kind of ignorance the right wing has spent years stoking, and in so doing further erodes what little foundation we have for social democracy. It may be a head fake; the fine print may have a lot of loopholes, in which case the policy won’t be terrible, but again it reinforces the enemy’s narrative that government spends too much on “programs,” that military and “security” spending don’t count toward the deficit and that the solution to economic misery and widespread unemployment is fiscal austerity.

As we learned from the Clinton years, there are many ways to take rhetorical positions that yield short-term tactical victories (“the era of Big Government is over”) but pave the way for long-term strategic defeat. During the primary when Obama famously disparaged Bill Clinton for failing to be a transformational president, it was that failure to make a long-term case for progressive governance he seemed to have in mind. Like a panicked thief running from the cops, he’s darted down the same alley, hoping for a respite from his pursuers and destined to find a dead end. I wish there was a way to sue for political malpractice, because what we’re seeing from the White House and Congressional Democrats lately would make for a depressingly good case.

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