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Borde-nough: Hot air on a freezing night

Published: January 28, 2011
Section: Opinions


President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union message on Tuesday night. It was followed by a response delivered by the Republican Chairman of the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan. For more than an hour, millions of Americans curled up on the couch and forgot about the frigid temperatures outside as the hot air ushered forth.

Some pundits complained that both speeches lacked detail. Many pointed to the second week in February, when the administration plans to release its budget proposal, as the moment when the uncertainties, which Obama and Ryan left their listeners to ponder, would be resolved.

But if one wanted to know the real state of the union, one would have done better to turn off the television and look back at an important political deal that was struck in December. None of them had as much to say about the course being charted for the ship of state as December’s arrangement between the parties—not Obama’s typically soaring, empty rhetoric, not the attendees’ dutiful, unthinking applause in the grand tradition of speeches before the Supreme Soviet, not Ryan’s canned and unsuccessful effort to mask his illegitimate desire to redistribute wealth to the wealthy with false talk of deficit reduction.

Obama and Congressional Republicans agreed to renew two legislative triumphs of the present Monopoly-money era of government that would otherwise have expired: continuing benefits for the long-term unemployed and tax breaks for even the richest taxpayers, which had first been enacted during the administration of George W. Bush.

The deal showed how little substance really divides the parties. The retention of tax breaks for the rich had been Republicans’ top priority or close to it. Obama had been lambasting the tax breaks’ unfairness since the 2008 campaign, and with the veto power and continued Democratic control of the Senate even after November’s Republican victories, he could easily have ended them.

His concession on this point, one might think, was worth a lot. But he sold it cheaply. Republicans would have had a very hard time politically letting unemployment benefits expire under any circumstances. Too many of their own members are dependent on the votes of people for whom the continuation of the benefits was a vital matter.

Rather than a give-and-take in which Obama secured the renewal of benefits in exchange for a renewal of the tax cuts, he and the Republicans might be better said to have arrived at a take-and-take. Based on his behavior, Obama’s real attitude toward tax cuts for the rich was no more hostile than Republicans’ real attitude toward renewal of the unemployment benefits.

What neither wanted was to be held accountable for offsetting the cost of this spending or of the tax cuts in terms of the budget. The giving, then, was done by the American public, which for decades will have to pay down the loans that Obama and the Republicans are taking out today to finance their political opportunism.

This week, the cost of this opportunism became a bit clearer when the Congressional Budget Office revealed that America’s