In the Arena

Deficit Gimmick

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At a crucial moment in the presidential campaign, Barack Obama chose not to pander by supporting a summer gas tax holiday that was supported by both Hillary Clinton and John McCain. This was good policy–we need to raise, not lower, the gasoline tax–and it turned out to be good politics: the public knew a gimmick when it saw one.

Now he’s proposing a freeze of non-defense discretionary spending for the three years after this one….and it sounds a lot like a gimmick to me. Now, it wouldn’t be a gimmick if the result was what Obama is striving for: cutbacks in ridiculous spending like farm subsidies. But as Ezra Klein points out, those subsidies persist because they have industrial strength lobbies. And if farm subsidies can’t be cut, something else will have to be for Obama to make his target. The programs with the least powerful lobbies are the one dedicated to helping poor people. You can see where this is going.

During the campaign, John McCain supported a discretionary spending freeze and Obama successfully derided it as using a sledgehammer instead of a scalpel. That still applies. If Obama wants to take on wasteful spending–in the defense budget and entitlements programs like Medicare as well, by the way–he’s doing the Lord’s work. When he frames it as a spending freeze–with no guarantee that good programs won’t get hurt–he’s floating a gimmick.

I know this idea was in the works long before the Massachusetts debacle, but it smells of desperation. The President needs to find ways to show his strength right now; this idea shows the opposite.