Deeds counter words

Posted on January 30, 2011. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

You really can’t blame an orator for opting for style over substance when giving a speech.

On Tuesday night, Barack Obama once again showed that he’s as comfortable and capable at the podium as any president in recent memory.

The practice of skilled oral communication is admirable to behold, but the elixir of rhetoric, like other intoxicants, often fosters false realities. The State of the Union speech was reminiscent of one of the many quotable observations expressed by Finley Peter Dunne. He defended the necessity of alcohol for a man “so that now and then he can have a good opinion of himself, undisturbed by the facts.”

Tuesday night, we all got a presidential cocktail full of undisturbed opinion gaudily garnished with several juicy twists of denial.

Obama isn’t the first politician to practice a “Hypocritic Oath,” but he’s mastered it in speech making spades. How can any politician start a discussion about the federal government’s “mountain of debt” and use the word “trillion” only one time?

That sole mention, incidentally, was as part of a fraction (a quarter of a trillion).

Somebody needs to fire up the coffee maker in the White House so maybe Obama and his aides can wake up and smell it. Not only does any conversation about national debt need to start with $14 trillion, it also must include an additional $53 trillion (and growing) in off-book federal liabilities for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

A fireside debt chat also should include the nearly $4 trillion the nation has paid in interest over the last decade, with at least a passing thought to what that expenditure has bought us. Interest payments now overshadow everything in the federal budget except defense and human services.

It seems more than a little odd that amid all the talk about possible budget cuts, the one untouchable item is the interest payment, which smacks of cold-heartedness in the worst way. It’s OK to cut school lunches or health care for millions of kids, but we can’t even entertain the idea of making a few prosperous lenders share any budget pain?

Maybe the State of the Union wasn’t the place to talk about the state of the states, but the mountain of debt isn’t limited to Washington. A few states have tried emulating our federal government’s approach and are now facing bankruptcy, too.

They will soon be knocking at the federal Treasury’s door for help, and their troubles may also become part of the national debt.

None of those facts made the final draft. Instead, the president announced, with straight faced decisiveness, that he proposed to freeze domestic spending for the next five years.

That measure will save $400 billion—over the next 10 years! To put the savings figure in a little more perspective, if left unchecked, the federal budget over the next decade will likely exceed $40 trillion.

It’s a little late in the federal deficit game to pursue a penny saved, penny-earned strategy. We’ve partied lavishly on the national MasterCard; turning things around will require a like measure of restraint and then some.

The phrase in his speech about a government that lives within its means sure sounded appealing. Unfortunately, Ross Perot nailed a nagging truth when he said, “Talk is cheap, words are plentiful, deeds are precious.”

Obama’s speech teemed with the right words, but his administration’s deeds run counter to them. Living within its means, to me, means a government whose expenses are less than its revenues.

But this year’s presidential budget featured a $1.27 trillion deficit, with a projection over the next 10 years of $10 trillion in shortages (which the Congressional Budget Office contends is a low estimate).

Finally, it shocks the sensibilities that, year after year, president after president can stand before the nation and assess the state of the union without uttering a single word about crime.

The indirect, technical exception this year was Obama’s mention of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was critically wounded in an assassination attempt in Tucson, Ariz., earlier this month.

The true cost of crime is incalculable. The direct costs—law enforcement, criminal justice, penal services, medical treatment of victims, lost property, lost productivity and so forth—are staggering enough, up into the hundreds of billions each year.

But extensive crime has a corrosive effect beyond its dollar damages. What price do our citizens pay in fear and worry? What are the opportunity costs when young lives are cut short, women are victimized and countless city neighborhoods are nests of terror and criminal tyranny?

We may well be mortgaging our future with deficit spending, but we are imperiling it by failing to confront and control the scourge of violent crime.

The president finished by quoting an employee at a little company who said, “We do big things.” It’s not very encouraging that some of the biggest things that need doing got the shortest shrift in his speech.

Talk is, indeed, cheap. But we’re paying dearly for it.

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