In re-reading yesterday’s speech by President Obama, several things stand out.
The first is its crass distortions. In his remarks in the Rose Garden, the president said, “If we’re not willing to ask those who’ve done extraordinarily well to help America close the deficit … then the logic, the math says everybody else has to do a whole lot more: We’ve got to put the entire burden on the middle class and the poor.” As others have pointed out, the top 10 percent of earners pay nearly 70 percent of all income taxes and the richest one percent pay more than 30 percent of their income to the federal government, while the average worker pays less than 14 percent. In addition, almost half of the public do not pay any income taxes at all. This is known as a progressive tax system. Now, one may argue the wealthy should pay even more than they do in taxes – but to pretend not embracing Obama’s plan would place the “entire” burden on the middle class and the poor isn’t “math”; it’s a massive distortion.
The second notable thing about Obama’s speech is its insight into the president’s state of mind. Obama has a deep, almost desperate, need to portray himself as the opposite of what he is. This appears to involve more than simple political considerations. Obama has an unusual capacity to conceive of himself in a way that is at odds with reality. And so the most profligate spender in history warns the rest of us about profligacy and not placing a debt burden “on our children’s shoulders.” The man on whose watch America amassed more than $4 trillion in debt says, “Washington has to live within its means.” The president whose stimulus package was among the most wasteful and ineffective in history insists we have to “go through the budget line-by-line looking for waste.” The same individual who ridiculed Speaker Boehner for his “my way or the highway” approach then threatened, in the very same speech, to issue a veto unless he got his way. And the man who professes solidarity with the poor has seen poverty increase each year of his presidency, with a record number of people (46 million) now living in poverty. If that weren’t enough, Obama also wants to reduce the tax benefit for charitable giving.
Then there’s the fellow who lectured us yesterday about fighting for the middle class “as hard as the lobbyists and some lawmakers have fought to protect special treatment for billionaires and big corporations.” This admonition comes from the same fellow who presides over a White House that inappropriately pressured the Office of Management and Budget to approve half-billion dollars to a company, Solyndra, which wasn’t deserving of the money and has now gone belly up. The reason the money was fast-tracked and funneled to Solyndra was because its chief investor, George Kaiser, is a significant fundraiser for Obama. Kaiser, by the way, is a billionaire.
What Obama is acting out is similar to a phenomenon we sometimes see among ministers. It isn’t simply that they avoid sermonizing about areas they themselves are failing in. They actually portray themselves to their congregations as mastering the very sins that beset them. Cynicism and hypocrisy are obviously at play in these circumstances — but often something more complicated is at work. These people have a compulsive need to cover up their vices by trumpeting an imaginary set of virtues. At some point this habit – to view oneself in a way that is utterly divorced from, and even the opposite of, reality – can become unsettling.
A third thing that stands out in Obama’s speech was its undiluted, rank appeal to class envy. The president is clearly hoping to win re-election by running hard against millionaires and billionaires, which is a (silly) political strategy. But that political strategy is anchored in a political philosophy, one that views wealth creators as people for whom the rest of us should have animus. More than that, they deserve to be punished because they are successful. People may do well –but the job of the federal government is to make sure they don’t do too well. That is a near constant sub-text of the entire Obama presidency. Rather than encouraging wealth creation, Obama has attempted to make it a badge of dishonor (except for rich people who support his campaign, in which case they are given a pass). None of this is surprising, given the intellectual milieu in which Obama spent his formative years.
One senses yesterday’s speech was Obama Unplugged, the real deal, the man in his essence. It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t impressive. But it was authentic.