2009-03-11 / Opinion

Obama the rhetorical magician

BY RICH LOWRY

George H.W. Bush made a "read my lips" no-new-taxes pledge in his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention in August 1988, and broke it two years later. That seemed a fast turnaround, but President Barack Obama has outpaced him by making, and then signaling his intention to break, a no-new-taxes pledge all in the same address.

"If your family earns less than $250,000 a year," Mr. Obama said in his speech to Congress, "you will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: not one single dime."

Unless, that is, your family pays a utility bill. Earlier from the same podium, Mr. Obama exhorted Congress to send him "legislation that places a marketbased cap on carbon pollution." This cap-and-trade program would increase the cost of energy for everyone, regardless of income. It is a broad-based (if indirect) tax increase of the sort the casual listener would have thought Mr. Obama ruled out in categorical language.

Mr. Obama's recently released budget outline proposes using revenues raised by cap-and-trade to fund his "making work pay" tax credits that were part of the stimulus bill. Of those credits, Mr. Obama said, "The recovery plan provides a tax cut — that's right, a tax cut — for 95 percent of working families." This was a central Obama pledge during the campaign, although he never mentioned he'd fund it with a countervailing tax increase on working families and everyone else.

Mr. Obama is a talented, but a wily and dishonest, salesman. Nineteenthcentury pol Martin Van Buren earned the sobriquet "the little magician" for his skillful manipulation of New York's political machine. Mr. Obama is the rhetorical magician, depending — as all magicians do — on deft sleight of hand.

In his speech, he didn't want his listeners to think he's a big-government heir to Lyndon Johnson, so he talked of slashing waste. He said his team had begun going "line by line" through the budget, and "we have already identified $2 trillion in savings over the next decade."

In common parlance, "savings" is taken to mean ... well, savings. But half of this $2 trillion is accounted for by Mr. Obama's planned tax increases on the rich — in other words, he has identified revenue, not savings. Much of the rest is arrived at by assuming the Iraq War would cost $170 billion a year for the duration, even though the president has long planned a drawdown. Mr. Obama portrays himself as ruthlessly paring back government when he is simply raising taxes and leaving Iraq.

Even as he expands government, he forswears any interest in expanding government and says he's scaling back: "Everyone will have to sacrifice some worthy priorities for which there are no dollars, and that includes me." Really? His budget increases discretionary spending by 12 percent next year. To paraphrase Bob Dole, where's the austerity?

Mr. Obama prides himself on a facility with words that has fueled his political rise. He clearly respects words, including their power to manipulate and mislead. "A good catchword," Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "can obscure analysis for 50 years." To pass a vast program changing the relationship of American government to its citizens, Mr. Obama only needs to obscure analysis for about a year.

— Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.

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