BIRNBAUM: A history lesson for Obama

Destroying the budget to save it is futile

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President Obama must be a poor student of history. His fiscal strategy appears to closely mimic one of the central mistakes of the U.S. war in Vietnam. He appears to want to destroy the federal budget to save it.

No one could possibly be confused about the president’s belief that government is a benevolent force that’s meant to thrive — and even grow — for the betterment of average people. Mr. Obama ran on that proposition last year and is now governing that way, insisting that taxpayers hand over more of their money to fund federal programs.

In keeping with that view, he has reacted with revulsion to the automatic spending cuts called “sequestration.” He has publicly recoiled at what he called a “meat cleaver” approach to austerity and has campaigned vigorously to rescind or partially replace it.

As with almost every other topic these days, he’s decided to play sequestration for all it’s worth politically. His comments have suggested that the pain the cuts will cause is entirely the Republicans’ fault, even though it was his own White House that suggested the idea of across-the-board reductions a year-and-a-half ago.

Republicans have asserted in response that the cuts won’t be horrific. After all, they represent only a small fraction of federal spending and would not prevent outlays from continuing to rise each year. GOP leaders acknowledge that mindless retrenchment isn’t their preferred way to eliminate waste and needless duplication, especially when the budget ax falls so hard on the Pentagon. Yet such cutbacks are better than no cuts at all in an out-of-control federal budget, they say.

To improve the situation, some Republicans have proposed allowing the executive branch to apply the reductions flexibly. Slashing vital programs could be averted as long as overall numbers are met.

Democrats have said absolutely not. Led by Mr. Obama, most Democrats have so far concluded that Republicans would be blamed if taxpayers see the federal services they rely on suffer. In other words, the harsher the impact of sequestration, the fewer voters would be inclined to vote Republican next year and the more Democrats there will be in Congress after the midterm elections.

What a remarkable calculation. Democrats and their president are determined to strengthen the federal government and expand many parts of it for the benefit of average Americans. Yet they are more than willing to wound that very same government severely — and hurt the people they want to help — if doing so would buy them political advantage.

Similar thinking went into the U.S. tactic during the Vietnam War more than 40 years ago. American troops were told to burn down villages to rid them of the enemy. They did so, even though they were destroying the lives of the very people they were in the country to help.

It was the absurdity of that reasoning that eventually convinced a majority of Americans to oppose the war and demand that our young men come home.

Journalist Peter Arnett, then with the Associated Press, is widely credited with most succinctly describing this ridiculous situation. In 1968, he quoted an unidentified U.S. military officer as saying, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” He was referring to a town called Ben Tre in Vietnam, which was rousted of Viet Cong, but also was bombed nearly to dust.

That to a lesser degree is what Mr. Obama is trying to do with the federal government. He’s willing to make sure the cuts he abhors will be as painful as possible so he can elect more Democrats who want to expand federal spending.

The reasoning didn’t work during the Vietnam era. In fact, it backfired. It’s likely to have the same impact today if the president isn’t careful.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is a columnist for The Washington Times, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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