Barack Obama was on David Letterman last night, and he was asked about the deficit.
Conservatives are seizing on this line, when asked what the national debt was when he came into office: “I don’t remember what the number was precisely,”
But actually his followup was worse: We don’t have to worry about it short term. But it is a problem long-term and even medium-term.”
Obama’s problem has always been his readiness to concede the deficit “problem” to his opponents.
He came into office with aggressive claims about the deficit. Not long after he came into office he announced a public sector wage freeze, in a nod to the wisdom of austerity.
The problem with acknowledging that the deficit is a medium-term problem (which it’s not) is that you then have a hard time making the case that what we need to do is blow out the deficit right now to stimulate the economy. People like the idea (in theory) of taking pain now for good long-term gains, and so austerity seems like a decent tradeoff.
But the US has one crisis right now: unemployment.
Imagine if a fire was raging at a hotel in Las Vegas, and the fire department was about to start hosing it down, and someone started talking about how Las Vegas faced a water sustainability problem, so we shouldn’t put out the fire. Everyone would rightly look at that person like a moron. Conceding that they kind of had a point is insane.
As long as Obama keeps acceding the fundamental claim of the deficit hawks, it’s really hard to make the case for what needs to be done now.