Opinion: Obama’s surreal fiscal cliff speech

By Daniel Burton

After a refreshing vacation to Hawaii for Christmas, President Obama took the stage this afternoon (EST) to make a speech on the impending fiscal cliff. Driving home during lunch, I listened to KSL’s Doug Wright describe the scene, and I arrived home just in time to watch the President speak.

Wright was describing the scene while waiting for the President to take the stage, and since Obama was late, he tried guessing where they were at. He could see a podium, but he after listing through the typical rooms where Obama addresses the nation from the White House, he concluded that he didn’t know where they were.

Then a prep team started to arrange people in the room, standing them on tiered levels behind the podium. Finally, Obama came in, and about then I found a live stream.

To listen to him, though, you wouldn’t have known that he was addressing a national fiscal crisis that could send America’s economy into a spiral. Or that nearly every income earning American is about to a tax hike. Or that several rounds of negotiations had failed, first with Speaker John Boehner in the House, and then between Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell in the Senate. You wouldn’t have been able to guess that his own Vice President had been called upon by McConnell to salvage what Reid clearly could not.

Nope. You would have thought that he was ready for a fun night of ringing in the New Year, the first of his second term.

At a time when almost everyone, but the most partisan on the political left, agrees that spending has got to be reigned if the deficit is going to be cut, Obama came to the stage and mocked his opponents, mocked Congress, and warned that raising taxes on the wealthy was only the beginning.

Every time he discussed a deal, Obama called for a “balanced” deal, by which he means that tax hikes must be included.

“And I want to make clear that any agreement we have to deal with these automatic spending cuts that are being threatened for next month, those also have to be balanced, because, remember, my principle always has been let’s do things in a balanced, responsible way. And that means the revenues have to be part of the equation in turning off the sequester and eliminating these automatic spending cuts, as well as spending cuts. 

Now, the same is true for anyfuture deficit agreement. Obviously we’re going to have to do more to reduce our debt and our deficit. I’m willing to do more, but it’s going to have to be balanced. We’re going to have do it in a balanced responsible way.”

In other words, being “responsible” and “balanced” means raising tax rates. Say what you will about taxes, and I think there are fair arguments to be made both ways about their effect on the economy, Obama’s sole solution seems to be increasing tax rates without any discussion of what spending he’s willing to decrease in order to prevent the federal debt from growing.

And even the President’s own bean counters agree that raising taxes will not stop the deficit and federal debt from growing.

In fact, he all but sounded like he was trying to scuttle negotiations that were taking place across town to force tax hikes on all Americans, all so he can point at the Republican controlled House of Representatives and say: “See? See what they did? You can’t trust them.”

What he did say, after blaming the failure to reach a grand deal on the fiscal cliff on Congress, was that we should

“Keep in mind that just last month Republicans in Congress said they would never agree to raise tax rates on the wealthiest Americans. Obviously, the agreement that’s currently discussed would raise those rates, and raise them permanently.”

That’s not the diplomacy of a deal maker or a leader. That’s just petty snubbing. Why would any Republican want to compromise when they know they’re going to have it stuck in their face before they can even pen the agreement on paper?

After spending most of his speech acting like he wanted negotiations to fail, Obama closed by joking about staying in DC for New Years, and the obviously supporting audience laughed, again. Obama made an appeal to get past politics, then, all but ignoring that he had spent the previous ten minutes playing politics:

“But the — the people who are with me here today, the people who are watching at home, they need our leaders in Congress to succeed. They need us — they need us to all stay focused on them. Not on politics. Not on, you know, special interests. They need to be focused on families, students, grandmas, you know, folks who are out there working really, really hard, and are just looking for a fair shot, and some reward for that hard work. They expect our leaders to succeed on their behalf. So do I.”

It was strange, surreal, and odd, and even Doug Wright commented as such as the speech, to an adoring crowd, ended.

The campaign is over, Mr. President. It’s time to start acting like a leader, not like a guy who just won class president of the local high school. Leading doesn’t happen by demanding what you want and making fun of people who oppose you. It happens by treating them with grace and respect, seeking compromise, and recognizing their interests are as important as your own. Like you, they are trying to do what’s best for America, and just because you see the course differently is no reason to demean and deride from the bully pulpit of the Presidency.

Daniel Burton lives in Holladay, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. You can follow him on Twitter as @publiusdb or on his blog PubliusOnline.com where he muses on books, politics and ideas. View additional posts by Daniel, here

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