Obama’s Version of Unity: Everyone Get Scared Together

In today’s Wall Street Journal Peggy Noonan likens President Obama’s sequester strategy to Howard Beale from the movie Network. It’s an incredible apt metaphor. In the movie Beale, who is angry that the network threatens to fire him, has a complete on-air freakout. He launches into tirade about the degradation of America and the inhumanity of modern society, wrapping up one monologue with “Woe is us. . . And woe is us! We’re in a lot of trouble!”

To everyone’s surprise the public loves it. The certifiably insane Beale begins to garner the highest ratings of his life. People are simply hooked in watching a man get on the television and blow a gasket every night. When it comes to cutting spending, Obama has decided to channel his inner-Beale to stunning results. As Noonan writes,

“It is always cliffs, ceilings and looming catastrophes with Barack Obama. It is always government by freakout.

That’s what’s happening now with the daily sequester warnings. Seven hundred thousand children will be dropped from Head Start. Six hundred thousand women and children will be dropped from aid programs. Meat won’t be inspected. Seven thousand TSA workers will be laid off, customs workers too, and air traffic controllers. Lines at airports will be impossible. The Navy will slow down the building of an aircraft carrier. Troop readiness will be disrupted, weapons programs slowed or stalled, civilian contractors stiffed, uniformed first responders cut back. Our nuclear deterrent will be indefinitely suspended. Ha, made that one up, but give them time.

Mr. Obama has finally hit on his own version of national unity: Everyone get scared together.”

What’s more, we usually are happy to comply. As if on cue, Obama panics then voters panic then legislators panic and before you know it we’ve gone to making modest spending cuts to enormous spending growth. Keep in mind that this “government by freakout” strategy is relatively new to the Obama administration. In November of last year Obama was not only completely calm about the potential sequester cuts, he was actively promoting them.

“Already, some in Congress are trying to undo these automatic spending cuts,” Obama said in a press conference. “My message to them is simple: No. I will veto any effort to get rid of those automatic spending cuts – domestic and defense spending. There will be no easy off-ramps on this one.”

Now, President Obama is looking so hard for an off-ramp he’s considering building one with more stimulus money. Pardon us if we don’t join in the hysteria. To be sure there is a much better approach to reduce spending than the meat-axe of the sequester which threatens our military readiness and completely ignores the entitlement problem. But the debate should be over how to improve the cuts, not how to eliminate them. After all, as Cato’s Dan Mitchell explains, the sequester doesn’t really “cut” anything, at least not in how most Americans understand the word.

“[T]he sequester will “cut” spending so much that the budget will grow by “only” $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years,” Mitchell writes. “It turns out that all the hyperbole and hysteria about the sequester is based on the dishonest Washington definition of a budget cut – i.e., when spending doesn’t rise as fast as projected in some artificial baseline.”

So rather than whip America into a frenzy about slowing the growth of spending why don’t we talk about the real problem – our long-term debt. It is that enormous figure that poses the real threat to America’s future. Unless something is done—and soon—the ballooning debt risks a death spiral of higher interest rates, soaring taxes and plummeting growth. But as to this very real crisis Obama responds much like another famous movie character: Kevin Bacon yelling “Remain calm, all is well” in Animal House as a riot erupts around him.