The President, His Budget, and the Poor

Commentary Magazine | Published on April 11, 2013

By Peter Wehner

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There is much one could say about President Obama’s Rose Garden statement on Wednesday announcing his FY 2014 budget. On the plus side, the president endorsed a “chained CPI”–a measure of inflation that is a more accurate way to factor rises in the cost of living into Social Security benefits. It’s a good idea, if quite a modest one (this Wall Street Journal editorial explains why there is less to it than meets the eye). And of course if the president really believed in a chained CPI, he would be a strong advocate for it rather than viewing it as a concession to Republicans. (Jay Carney, in this interview with Fox News’ Bret Baier, concedes that a chained CPI is “is not preferred policy by this president.”)

In any event, the downsides of the record-setting $3.78 trillion budget overwhelm the upside. A quick summary of the budget can be found here, but here’s some of what you need to know: Over a 10-year period it would raise taxes by $1.1 trillion–on top of $1 trillion in taxes from the Affordable Care Act and more than $600 billion from the president’s recent tax hike. It increases spending by $964 billion. And it adds $8.2 trillion to our debt. The debt held by the public as a share of the economy is predicted to reach 78.2 percent in 2014–nearly double what it was in 2008.

The Obama budget, then, continues the Obama project, which is to increase the size, the cost, and the reach of the federal government even as it continues to raise taxes. In that sense, it’s merely the latest extension of the progressive philosophy of President Obama.

But there’s another area worth focusing on: Poverty and care for the most vulnerable members of society. That was a repeated theme in Mr. Obama’s Rose Garden statement. The president said he would accept some ideas as part of a compromise–“if, and only if, they contain protections for the most vulnerable Americans.” He said “no one who works full-time should have to raise his or her family in poverty.” And the president said that unlike his opponents, “the people I feel for are the people who are directly feeling the pain of these [sequester] cuts–the people who can least afford it.” (Never mind the fact that the sequester idea originated with the president, not Republicans.)

The Obama message, then, is this: I care about the poor while Republicans do not. The president, however, has a rather odd way of demonstrating his solidarity with the poor. To see why, it’s worth focusing not on a budget that will never be implemented but on conditions that touch real lives. For example, during the Obama years the U.S. has seen the highest poverty spike since the 1960s, leaving nearly 50 million Americans poor–including nearly 20 percent of the country’s children. The poverty rate has increased nearly every year of the Obama presidency (between 2011 and 2012 it was level). Income inequality has risen. Add to that the fact that the number of people on food stamps is at an all-time high of more than 47 million, compared to fewer than 31 million people on food stamps the month Obama was first elected.

Obama defenders will say that this is the result of the very nasty recession that hit the country in 2008, to which the response is (a) the recession officially ended the first summer of the president’s first term and (b) historically the worse the recession the stronger the recovery. Yet under Obama, we’ve experienced the weakest recovery since before the middle part of the last century. (Last Friday, amidst a terrible jobs report, we learned that the labor-force participation in March dropped to its lowest point since the late 1970s.)

Now, I’m not inclined to blame every bit of bad news on the president or his policies (which is more than Mr. Obama ever did when it came to his predecessor). The problems plaguing our economy, and the causes of poverty, are deep and complicated. Still, the president’s economic policies have been, by any reasonable measure, a failure. And while many people have suffered because of it, none have suffered more than the most vulnerable members of our society.

The left likes to talk the compassion game. But it shouldn’t be too much to ask that progressives be judged by outcomes, not inputs; by real-world results, not rhetoric. By that standard, liberalism over the last several decades–from policies on welfare, crime and education to economics and family structure–has often done great and lasting harm to the poor. Conservatism is the best way to advance the common good. That is an argument more Republicans ought to think about making.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.