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The president’s State of the Union address was a reminder of how fast things can change in Washington—and how much remains the same inside the White House.
Some of the changes were visible and obvious—the absence of Nancy Pelosi and her permanent grin behind the dais, the growing number of Republicans in the chamber, the scrambled seating arrangement that had the welcome effect of tamping down the competing choruses of cheering and jeering.
But other changes—and the evidence of continuity—are better identified by comparing this address with the president’s 2009 and 2010 addresses.
In his 2009 address to Congress (technically not a State of the Union), the president lectured Congress and the American people about how they “managed to spend more money and pile up more debt, both as individuals and through our Government, than ever before.”
Of course, in the intervening months between then and now, he proceeded to go on the biggest spending binge in American history: expending $862 billion on a stimulus that stimulated nothing but the government sector, spawning a $1-trillion healthcare behemoth that will surely grow bigger than his actuaries predicted or imagined, and adding an unprecedented $1.4 trillion in deficit spending.
But yesterday, just 23 months later, he declared, “We need to take responsibility for our deficit” and “rein in our deficits.” He said he was open to “painful cuts” and “willing to eliminate whatever we can honestly afford to do without.” He even proposed a five-year freeze on annual domestic spending at current levels. “This would reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade.”
Now that’s change we can believe in. Given that the House just hours earlier passed a measure rolling back spending to FY08 levels, there would seem to be a compromise in the offing. And given that the House controls the purse strings—and budget- and deficit-cutters control the House—the House majority would seem to have some leverage.
Of course, cutting spending will be difficult if Congress keeps, in the president’s words, “larding up legislation with pet projects.” That helps explain why he called for “earmark reform” in 2010. This year he was even sterner, warning that “if a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it.”
That’s sounds like the Barack Obama of 2008. Of course, as president, he had no problem signing the stimulus bill or the healthcare bill, both loaded with pork and pet projects. One suspects that the president’s tough talk on earmarks may have something to do with the new makeup of Congress.
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