"Today I'm pledging to cut the deficit we inherited in half by the end of my first term in office."
Three years ago, a group of leaders gathered in Washington for what was billed as a "Fiscal Responsibility Summit." After bipartisan spending blowouts on TARP, the auto bailouts, and an economic stimulus package, it was finally time to start balancing the federal books.
"We cannot simply spend as we please and defer the consequences to the next budget, the next administration, or the next generation," one speaker said. "So if we confront this crisis without also confronting the deficits that helped cause it, we risk sinking into another crisis down the road as our interest payments rise, our obligations come due, confidence in our economy erodes, and our children and our grandchildren are unable to pursue their dreams because they're saddled with our debts."
The fiscal hawk warning about the dangers of runaway debt wasn't Rep. Paul Ryan. He wasn't from the Heritage Foundation. He wasn't even a Republican. He was President Obama.
Candidates make and break promises all the time. Some promises they declare in good faith only to discover that, despite their best efforts, circumstances make it impossible to fulfill them. Others they cynically issue without the slightest intention of ever honoring them. Obama has made an insidious art of blurring the distinction between these two types of broken vows.
Among others, there was his campaign promise not to use signing statements that undermine the intent of laws passed by Congress. The president has issued at least 20 of them.
There was his executive order to close down the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay within a year. That was in January 2009. Gitmo is still open for business.
Then there was the pledge he made at that White House summit in February 2009, to halve the $1.3 trillion deficit within four years. Like the executive order on Gitmo, this wasn't some flippant comment made on the campaign trail. It was a serious policy statement issued after Obama entered the Oval Office and had taken full account of the economy and the TARP/bailout/stimulus spending binge.
Why were the American people supposed to believe this pledge? Because Obama submitted a budget with a 10-year blueprint that clearly showed the deficit declining to $533 billion in 2013. "While that suggests a two-thirds reduction, exceeding Mr. Obama's goal of at least half," the Washington Post reported, "advisers note that the current deficit as a starting point is inflated by one-time expenses to stimulate the economy."
The president had two years with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress during which he could have pushed for any combination of tax increases, spending cuts, and entitlement reforms to reduce the deficit. Instead, those "one-time expenses" became the baseline for an unprecedented, permanent expansion of government spending and an unprecedented string of deficits.
In his third year, the president rejected the recommendations of his own debt-reduction commission and submitted his third straight budget with a trillion-dollar-plus deficit, which the Democratic-controlled Senate rejected, 97-0. Now in his fourth year, he has submitted a budget that shows a $1.3 trillion deficit - exactly what the deficit was when he took office.
But, bless his heart, the president promises - really, honestly this time - that the deficit will decline to $901 billion in 2013. And if the American people will only give him four more years, he's pledged to stabilize the debt at twice its historic level by 2018.
How do we know? He has a budget with a 10-year blueprint to prove it.