Answering the Questions

November 17, 2011

Given the underwhelming performance of some of the Republican Presidential candidates, some might assume from the title that this article will focus on the range of delayed and incoherent responses we have seen from some of the candidates. While thoroughly flabbergasting, these gaffes are not my focus this week.

I have very high standards. I expect answers that address the question that was asked. Sadly, I am somewhat dismayed at various Democratic officials who do not reply with answers that are as cogent or germane as I would expect. Last Sunday, David Gregory of Meet the Press played a clip of President Obama during the 2008 campaign describing the irresponsibility of former President Bush in allowing the debt to skyrocket. Gregory asked if President Obama should now receive this same criticism due to the continuing growth of the debt. DNC Chair and Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz replied by citing various shortcomings and problems with Mitt Romney and other Republicans. She made some very good factual observations but they did not answer the question that was asked.

Here’s the Answer

There is no question that President Bush owns the debt that was amassed during his administration. He started the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the authorization of Congress. He called for gigantic tax cuts even though the Congressional Budget Office warned that these cuts would cause huge deficit and debt problems. Congress passed these cuts and they became law. Bush also urged the passage of a popular but unfunded prescription plan coverage which was also adopted. And, finally, the total lack of regulation of the financial sector led to the collapse of the market and the economy when the house of cards came tumbling down after the worthless mortgage backed securities caused the banking crisis.

President Obama is trying to clean up this mess while still being saddled with the laws passed during the previous administration. He has stated repeatedly that our current tax rates are problematic and we cannot pay expenses and pay down the debt with so little revenue. He proposed raising the top marginal tax rate a few percent but was blocked by House and Senate Republicans who threatened to filibuster and defeat unemployment insurance extensions. This, coupled with the high unemployment that resulted from the economic crisis of the previous administration, has yielded much less revenue than we need to pay our expenses.

President Obama is trying to successfully complete the extremely expensive military actions started by the previous administration. He has done exactly as he promised during his 2008 campaign. We killed Bin Laden and we are leaving Iraq. Finishing these actions required extra spending of money we did not have but stopping on a dime was not an option.

President Obama does not own the increases in the national debt since he’s taken office. The ownership lies in part with the Bush administration for proposing tax cuts we couldn’t afford and starting expensive wars that they didn’t finish and in part with Congressional Republicans who were unwilling to allow a slight top tax rate increase that would have provided more revenue.

Presidents do not pass laws and cannot simply disregard laws. Congress passes laws and controls the budget. However, Bush owns his debt (at least in part) because the actions and laws passed by Congress during his administration were precisely what he requested (i.e., authorization for military action and tax cuts). President Obama does not own our recent debt increases because Congress blocked him from increasing revenue by increasing the top tax rate and he had no choice but to see our military actions through to an appropriate conclusion.

Don’t Sidestep the Question

When the growing national debt comes up, Democrats need to be prepared and to respond directly and firmly. Sidestepping questions by bringing up another topic or talking about the other party’s shortcomings makes it seem as though you either don’t have an answer or you are hiding a fallibility of your party. The President is playing the hand he was dealt and has managed to effect a great deal of positive change including 20 consecutive months of private sector job growth and substantial military successes. So, when these unfounded criticisms are raised, we should all give a full-throated rebuttal based on the facts.