It was a kinder, gentler, somewhat maudlin version of his campaign speech that President Trump delivered to Congress Tuesday. In case you missed it, here’s the 20-second version, which I present as my service to you:
America is reeling and its streets are afire because of foreign countries that take advantage of us and foreigners who sneak into the land, so what we need to do is to slam the doors and close the shutters and worry about doing a bunch of stuff for our own people, just as soon as we figure out what that stuff is.
Also, our children will grow up in a nation of miracles, if only we find the courage to share the dreams that fill our hearts. These are actual quotes. I was not watching “Moana.”
Speechifying aside, though, we did learn something significant this week about the president’s governing vision, because he also previewed the budget he will send to Congress. And what’s interesting here is that as much as he talks about breaking with the past and the failure of our political duopoly, Trump seems poised to continue charging down a path that a reckless generation of politicians has already trampled.
A president’s budget, as you may know, is really more like a statement of priorities and general direction, which Congress rarely enacts these days in any event. It’s a glimpse into the choices a president intends to make — or avoid.
And there are choices to be made. Something like 60 percent of federal spending goes to entitlement programs — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. Almost another quarter goes out the door for military spending and to pay down the interest on the federal debt.
That means that the remaining chunk of the budget — roughly a fifth — has to fund all the other programs the federal government administers, from veterans’ affairs to safeguarding the nuclear stockpile to maintaining and staffing embassies around the world. This is what they’re talking about when they use the term “discretionary spending.”
The perennial problem here is that social programs keep gobbling up an ever larger share of the budget as the boomers get older and call it a day, and we’ve been fighting a bunch of wars, which are expensive. Meanwhile, politicians, reacting to the general discord in the electorate, have been slashing tax rates for most of the last 30 years.
All of which means we have to borrow money to maintain the status quo. Most economic experts will tell you that it’s not a huge problem to run deficits as long as they’re not growing faster than your gross national product. Right now, they’re not.
But if the deficit grows faster than an expanding economy, you start to risk higher interest rates and inflation and general mayhem. Which is why politicians in both parties are always talking about federal borrowing as a crisis that has to be addressed.
The question, of course, is how. Democrats have generally called for raising more revenue, mainly by taxing the wealthy at a higher rate. Republican leaders have clamored for long-term spending reductions, starting with a restructuring of revered entitlement programs.
In 2011, President Obama and the Republican speaker at the time, John Boehner, came within inches of a so-called grand bargain to bring the budget more in line with reality. Boehner was willing to accede to more than $800 billion in new revenue over a 10-year period; Obama agreed to changes in Medicare and Social Security that would have slowed spending.
That deal fell apart because Obama decided he wanted even more in new taxes than Boehner had initially promised, and Republican leaders around Boehner were pretty sure they couldn’t win support for any additional taxes. So, instead, Congress reduced both military and discretionary spending and established rigid caps for how fast they could grow.
Which leads us back to Trump. Based on what his administration put out this week, Trump is rejecting any of the compromises made by either Obama or Boehner. He’s asking to cut taxes even more (we don’t have specifics, but they’ll be big, beautiful tax cuts that affect both corporations and individuals), and he’s refusing to contemplate changes to existing entitlements.
Also, Trump wants to raise military spending by more than $50 billion annually, and he vows more money for veterans, a stepped-up commitment to law enforcement and a massive program to build roads and tunnels.
The only cuts Trump wants to make to pay for all this are in discretionary spending. We don’t know what he has in mind, exactly, but maybe Rex Tillerson will show up to work one day and find out that the State Department building in Foggy Bottom has been sold and he now works in a flat above the Whole Foods.
Even with the caveat that Trump’s soon-to-be-unveiled budget is really just an opening statement, there are a bunch of reasons that this plan is profoundly disappointing.
The first is that it would almost certainly explode the deficits that Trump is always going on about when he indicts the Obama administration. Entitlement and defense spending will only continue to grow, and even painful cuts in other spending can’t possibly cover the shortfall. (Neither, by the way, can taxes on the wealthy, or at least not by themselves.)
This may be the underlying plan, since Steve Bannon, Trump’s personal Rasputin, has already said he wants to dismantle the apparatus of the governing state. What better way than to bankrupt the federal government, ultimately forcing it to abandon its promises and shutter its storefronts?
The second disconcerting fact is that Trump’s vision, if enacted, would land most heavily on the people who can least afford it. I’m not saying there aren’t pointless programs in the federal bureaucracy (there are), but you can cut only so much from housing and food stamps and foreign aid before you verge on cruelty — just as you can cut only so much from homeland security and energy before you endanger the public.
But the biggest problem with Trump’s budgeting philosophy is that it comes down squarely on the wrong side of a generational choice. And in this way, he’s not very different from all the governing Democrats or Republicans he rails against, who’ve mostly declined to make any choices at all.
When you’re spending most of your national wealth on programs aimed specifically at your oldest citizens, it means you’re not investing in their grandchildren or the technologies they’ll need. When you’re accelerating debt instead of slowing it, you’re only delaying the reckoning.
Trump has a rare chance, as a nondoctrinaire conservative with a Congress of his own party, to pick up where Obama and Boehner left off. He might actually be able to win some concessions toward a more balanced tax code (something he hinted at in the campaign) in exchange for modest changes to entitlement programs that would make them more sustainable and more progressive.
Instead, in his budget, he proposes more of the same abdication that has defined his entire generation of leaders. He won’t risk a fight with the old and the affluent. The only people he seems willing to offend are the poor who rely most on federal programs and the government workers whom nobody cares much about.
I guess they’re the only Americans who won’t soon get tired of winning.