What's Blame Got to Do With It?

In recent posts, Von, Jim Manzi and I have fretted about President Obama’s fiscal recklessness, noting the massive structural deficits he intends to run, a domestic agenda that promises to exacerbate them, and a dearth of serious proposals addressed at returning America to fiscal health.

Andrew is kind to link us. He is also among the fiscal conservatives who fretted about these issues during the Bush Administration, while a lot of “team players” held their tongues. In reference to our posts, he notes:

Context is needed. That context is a) an inheritance of unprecedented debt accumulated under Bush and Cheney – debt that is largely already built in to the fiscal future Obama is now blamed for (two wars, huge tax cuts and Medicare D); and b) a phenomenally brutal downturn which had the potential to turn into a global depression (a potential that still exists if in milder form). I don’t blame Obama for failing to turn all this around in five months, and for running a debt this big right now.

Fair enough. I neither blame President Obama for creating this mess nor fault him “for failing to turn all this around in five months,” especially given the arguably wise decision to aim fiscal stimulus at averting a possible global depression. What I object to, however, is the notion that accurately apportioning blame is the proper lens through which to view all this. I blame the Bush Administration for its profligate spending, but that isn’t a point that mitigates the harm that will be done by the planned, non-emergency outlays of President Obama. The Bush era’s two costly wars, huge tax cuts and prescription drug benefit make costly endeavors by a successor administration that much more unaffordable, and thus even less fiscally responsible, than they’d otherwise be.

There is a crucial larger point to be made here. On numerous fronts, President Bush’s tenure proved a disaster for the United States. Let’s take the abuse of detainees as an example. The photographs at Abu Ghraib, evidence that the United States tortured innocent men, and the prison put at Gitmo in a calculated attempt to skirt America’s legal system all represent catastrophic hits to America’s reputation and its perceived moral authority. These missteps also exacerbate anti-American sentiments in Islamic communities worldwide, making it marginally harder for Muslim moderates to to defend America, and marginally easier for radicals to recruit new members, whether as terrorists or merely as sympathizers.

The Bush Administration bears the blame for the foregoing. What does that imply about how those who care about this issue should interact with the Obama Administration? On that question, I agree with the approach Andrew has taken — he’s demanded that the Obama Administration cease torture and close Gitmo, drawn attention even to temporary wavering, and generally written as though the shortcomings of the Bush Administration compel drastic, immediate changes by the current president.

The insight beneath Andrew’s approach? We must judge the Obama Administration on its actions, and whether its policies address America’s problems or ignore them to our detriment. The pundit’s impulse to treat the new president fairly is an understandable one, but it should never lead us to extend benefits of doubts when instead demanding accountability and exerting pressure for better policies would serve the national interest. Judge any future president on a curve set by the Bush Administration, and he’ll underperform, as any student would if assured a passing grade for below average work.

Andrew concludes:

I don’t blame Obama for failing to turn all this around in five months, and for running a debt this big right now. I will blame him if he does nothing serious to tackle this in the next year. That does not mean bromides about how healthcare reform will save us all money. It means serious cuts in defense, entitlements and corporate welfare (and perhaps a VAT or a serious gas tax).

I’m amenable to withholding blame, but I’ll not withhold comment or cease efforts at exerting public pressure until we’re given some indication that President Obama intends to make a serious effort at fiscal sanity — especially when the deficits he projects for ten years hence suggests there isn’t anything doing. Public pressure is being applied now in hopes that Obama enact health care legislation and allow gays in the military and pursue all sorts of other priorities a year from now. So long as all these priorities are garnering noisy public support, and prominent fiscal conservatives are deferring for a year to be fair, guess which wheel isn’t going to get greased 12 months hence?