Charlie Mitchell: The president's new perspective is not what matters

November 2, 2013 11:13:44 PM



OXFORD -- The junior senator from Illinois had something to say: "Mr. President, I rise today to talk about America's debt problem. The fact that we are here today to debate raising America's debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that we now depend on financial assistance from foreign governments to finance our government's reckless fiscal policies." 


That junior senator was Barack Obama. The date was March 16, 2006. He continued: "Over the past five years our federal debt has increased by $4.5 trillion to $8.6 trillion. That is 'trillion' with a 'T.' 


Today, it's still "trillion" with a "T," but the total is $17 trillion. 


Sen. Obama continued: "The cost of our debt is one of the fastest growing expenses in the federal budget. This rising debt is a hidden domestic enemy, robbing our cities and states of critical investments in infrastructure like bridges, ports, and levees; robbing our families and our children of critical investments in education and health care reform; robbing our seniors of the retirement and health security they have counted on. Every dollar we pay in interest is a dollar that is not going to investment in America's priorities." 


It was early in the second year of the second term of President George W. Bush when Sen. Obama made that floor speech. He pointed out, factually, that it took 42 presidents 224 years to run up the first trillion of foreign-held debt, yet another trillion had been added by the Bush administration in a mere five years. 


Guess what? Obama is ending his fifth year and the total debt hasn't risen $1 trillion on his watch. It has risen $7 trillion so far, and will hit $20 trillion overall before he leaves office. 


The senator continued: "Increasing America's debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that 'the buck stops here.' Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better." 


True then. 


True now. 


Of course, President Obama has been confronted several times with his own words -- and with his vote the same day against increasing debt ceiling. 


He has an explanation. His perspective, has changed, he says. 


"I think that it's important to understand the vantage point of a senator versus the vantage point of a president," Obama said in 2011. "When you're a senator, traditionally what's happened is, this is always a lousy vote. Nobody likes to be tagged as having increased the debt limit -- for the United States by a trillion dollars. As president, you start realizing, you know what, we, we can't play around with this stuff. This is the full faith and credit of the United States. And so that was just an example of a new senator making what is a political vote as opposed to doing what was important for the country. And I'm the first one to acknowledge it." 


So he was wrong to oppose the increase? He was mistaken about all that other stuff about being beholden to foreign powers, blowing money on interest payments and such? 


Of course not. 


The president's changed perspective is not what matters. What matters is that Americans have been sucked into a game of "Gotcha." Obama foes reading his words from seven years ago will be delighted, sensing that he's been "outed" as unprincipled, a flip-flopper. Obama fans will be angry, and contend he's unfairly being ridiculed. 


But the debt is not a product of parties or personalities. It's the product of electing "leaders," regardless of their political stripes, who play us against each other and spend our money (and our grandchildren's money) to curry our favor. We are a spoiled nation, a spoiled people. We want cuts, but not in what we like or think is important. We want taxes increased, but on the other guy. 


It's no fun to scold. Truth is, however, there is only one path out of the debt mess. To walk it, an American majority will have see how we've been sold out and decide that enough is enough. 


Otherwise, regardless of who is in the White House and who is in Congress, the public's debt -- and it is our debt, not the president's or members of Congress -- will continue to grow.