the national interest

Obama’s Low-Down, Dirty Use of Statistics

US President Barack Obama speaks at Lorain County Community College on April, 18, 2012 in Elyria, Ohio. President Obama traveled to the college to attend a round table discussion and deliver a speech about the economy while traveling to the area to also attend campaign events.
Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Last month, President Obama delivered a speech assailing the Republican budget crafted by Paul Ryan. The speech enraged conservatives, and the rage shows no sign of relenting. It has become the most commonly cited element in their indictment of him as running a dirty, vicious, dishonest reelection campaign.

Charles Krauthammer fulminates:

How to shake them from their lethargy? Fear again. Tell them, as Obama repeatedly does, that Paul Ryan’s budget would cut Pell Grants by $1,000 each, if his domestic cuts were evenly distributed. (They are not evenly distributed, making the charge a fabrication. But a great applause line.)

It’s true that Ryan’s budget cuts are not evenly distributed. That’s because they are not distributed at all. Well, some parts are distributed, like cuts to low-income programs. But the section Obama is describing here is the Ryan budget’s plan to impose severe cuts to the general category of domestic discretionary spending, which basically includes all spending that isn’t for security, entitlements, or paying interest on the national debt. Ryan has never explained how he would find the money for these cuts.

What’s more, Obama has explained quite explicitly that the details don’t exist, and he is describing the effect of an across-the-board cut for illustrative purposes. Here is the Obama speech from last month, where he explains, after spelling out the effects of an across-the-board cut:

Now, you can anticipate that Republicans may say they’ll avoid some of these cuts, since they don’t specify exactly the cuts that they would make. But they can only avoid some of these cuts if they cut even deeper in other areas.

This is math. If they want to make smaller cuts to medical research, that means they’ve got to cut even deeper in funding for things like teaching and law enforcement. The converse is true as well. If they want to protect early childhood education, it will mean further reducing things like financial aid for young people trying to afford college.

And, indeed, the complaints from Republicans like Paul Ryan have been exactly what Obama predicted they would be: You can’t accuse us of those cuts, we haven’t said what we’d cut at all! They do, however, believe they deserve to congratulate themselves for their courage in proposing cuts they refuse to identify.

Conservative pundits have echoed Ryan’s indignation, but it’s not clear they understand his game at all. Fred Barnes complains:

In April, speaking to newspaper editors in Washington, D.C., the president took a unique approach to the 2013 budget passed by the House. “I want to actually go through what it would mean for our country if these [spending] cuts were to be spread out evenly,” he said. “So bear with me.” 

The GOP budget, which would increase the national debt by $3 trillion over 10 years, distributed cuts quite unevenly. That’s the way budgets are put together: Some programs are cut, others have their spending increased. 

Right. The way budgets are put together is you cut some things more than others. By that standard, what Ryan has designed is not a budget at all. Simply setting a level without providing any detail, or even general guidelines, as to how you plan to get there is not budgeting. If Ryan thinks there are hundreds of billions of dollars in savings in domestic discretionary spending, he should offer some sense of what they are. If Obama can’t argue against such a proposal by citing the across-the-board effect of such a cut — while explicitly informing his audience that the cuts may not be across the board! — how can he argue against it? Is there any legitimate approach to opposing an unspecified spending cut?

Obama’s Low-Down, Dirty Use of Statistics