"There are those who claim we have to choose between paying down our deficits ... and investing in job creation and economic growth," President Obama said last week. "This is a false choice." During the same speech, he asked his audience to "let me just be clear" that his administration, having racked up the biggest budget deficits ever, is embracing fiscal responsibility, as reflected in his vow that "health insurance reform" will not increase the deficit "by one dime."
For connoisseurs of Obama-speak, the address featured a trifecta, combining three of his favorite rhetorical tropes. There was the vague reference to "those who" question his agenda, the "false choice" they use to deceive the public, and the determination to "be clear" and forthright, in contrast with those dishonest naysayers. These devices are useful as signals that the president is about to mislead us.
Obama says his opponents wrongly insist that we choose between "paying down our deficits" and "investing in job creation and economic growth." But that is not the way his real critics, as opposed to the imaginary, nameless ones who appear in his speeches, would frame the issue.
The real critics question the premise that the spending Obama supports, which he says ultimately will boost tax revenues and curtail outlays for public assistance programs, should be considered an investment at all -- and, if so, whether it is a better use of this money than the market would have found. Copying his predecessor by throwing more money at education, for example, is a dubious strategy for spurring economic growth, since there is no clear relationship between spending and student achievement.
Likewise, Obama's promise that health insurance subsidies will not expand the deficit may be "clear," but it's not realistic, since it's based on accounting tricks and wishful thinking. Congressional Democrats avoided counting a $240 billion Medicare "fix" by putting it in a separate bill and assumed reimbursement cuts that probably will never materialize.