Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The Food Stamp President

You can be factually correct while lying through your teeth.

On the stump, Newt Gingrich tells of how, when he was speaker of the House in the mid-90's, gasoline was $1.13 a gallon. When Barack Obama became president, Gingrich says, gas was a mere $1.89, before approximately doubling under the president's tenure. Gingrich then concludes that the current high and rising price at the pump is the result of President Obama's failed policies.

Let me get this straight. Newt implies we had a gradual increase in gas prices over a decade or more, and then an explosion under Barack Obama. Is that about right?

No, it isn't. Barack Obama was inaugurated in January 2009. The price of oil began its extraordinary march upward very early in the second term of George W. Bush (I do not ascribe the rise to Bush's policies), peaking at over $145 per barrel (as noted contemporaneously in this very blog)in July of 2008. As I write this, oil is around $105 per barrel. Gas prices peaked at over $4 per gallon in the same 2008 timeframe as oil. Gas is again marching upward, and currently stands at $3.76.*

Yes, gas was lower at the beginning of the Obama presidency than now. By the time Obama became president, the price of oil and gasoline had plummeted from record highs. No surprise there: the economy was in the midst of its most severe downturn since the Great Depression, and demand for fuel followed the economy off the cliff. (I wrote about that, too, at the time.) Subsequent economic growth, and a host of other factors, has caused a corresponding rebound in oil and gas prices. Both have been ticking upward. This was completely expected.

Newt and most of the Republican primary candidates preach the solution to high gas prices is more domestic drilling. But oil production in the U.S. is already up substantially in recent years, even as U.S. demand for gasoline has been in decline. Just as remarkable, the U.S. has recently become a net exporter of gasoline! As always, the market for oil and gasoline (and diesel) is global.

As Newt surely knows, the picture he paints of the historical trajectory of gas prices is utterly, shamelessly false, even if the two datapoints he provides are correct. He apparently thinks the Republican base forgot about previous high prices, and is too poorly informed to understand what's driving current prices. Let's blame Obama.

Similarly, Gingrich routinely refers to Obama as "the food stamp president," as if Obama's goal upon attaining the presidency was to immediately and dramatically increase the size of the welfare state. Of course, Obama had nothing to do with it. The explosion in food stamps (part of what economists call "automatic stabilizers") was the obvious consequence of ten million workers losing their jobs in the financial crisis. You'd think people who'd lost their livelihood might turn to food stamps, wouldn't you?

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney says Obama is "happy" with trillion dollar deficits. Really? Happy? At the time of Obama's inauguration, the CBO budget deficit projection for 2009 was $1.2 trillion. That's the budget, the economy, and the deficit that Obama inherited.

To hear Republicans, you'd think Obama came into office and immediately went on a discretionary spending spree, resulting in out-of-control government and exploding deficits. Nothing could be further from the truth. The deficit is at its current level because those pesky automatic stabilizers (food stamps, unemployment benefits, etc.—colloquially called the "safety net") kick in when the economy tanks, and because all those millions of unemployed are collecting assistance instead of paying taxes. Revenue has declined precipitously. What else would you expect? Discretionary spending has nothing to do with it.

More mendacity: Rick Santorum said the president thinks every American should go to college (Santorum: "he's such a snob"). Utterly false, and Santorum finally admits it. (Santorum also disparages college as a place where students are indoctrinated with left-wing beliefs. I guess I missed that part while I was learning math and computer science.)

Back to Gingrich: Here is what Newt said last night in his Georgia primary victory speech about comments by Obama in yesterday's White House press conference [my transcription]:

GINGRICH: And I thought today, in one of the most shallow and self serving comments by a president that I've heard in a long time, he was candid in his press conference. He said, you know, I'm really worried about higher gas prices because it will make it harder for me to get reelected. [crowd groans; Newt raises right and to indicate sincerity] I did not make this up. It was just nice to know that the president once again has managed to take the pain of the American people and turn it into his own personal problem. [my emphasis]

You can watch video of Gingrich's entire victory speech here. The transcribed remarks appear at approximately the 13:50 point in the video.

Here's what Obama actually said [my transcription begins at 1:15]:

REPORTER: Your critics will say on Capital Hill that you want gas prices to go higher, because you have said before that will wean the American people off fossil fuels onto renewable fuels. How do you respond to that?

OBAMA: Ed, just from a political perspective, do you think the President of the United States going into a reelection wants gas prices to go up higher? Is that ... is there anybody here who thinks that makes a lot of sense? Look, here's the bottom line with respect to gas prices. I want gas prices lower because they hurt families. Because I meet folks every day who have to drive a long way to get to work, and them filling up this gas tank gets more and more painful, and is tax out of their pocketbooks, out of their paychecks. And a lot of folks are already operating on the margins right now. And it's not good for the overall economy, because when gas prices go up, consumer spending oftentimes pulls back, and we're in the midst right now of a recovery that is starting to build up steam, and we don't want to reverse it.

Yes, Newt was making it up. Isn't it remarkable that he'd lie about his lie even as he was telling it?

Nobody is surprised that politicians pander to the electorate in the midst of a campaign. But the degree of mendacity spewing out of the Republican primary field is a thing to behold. Obama the great socialist! Destroyer of the economy! Obama wants to turn America into Europe! All this is a seamless, mindless extension of the birther conspiracy and the Obama-is-a-closet-Muslim conspiracy that have played so well on the radical right (pretty much the only right there is) these past few years. Where, oh where, is the sanity?

Sad to say, it is probably true that most of the Republican electorate swallows this stuff whole. When Newt earnestly says that he's not making this up, raising his right hand in a fake display of honesty, Republicans trust that he's accurately characterizing what the president said. You can be sure that Fox News won't disabuse them of that belief. Can the base really be so poorly informed and unsophisticated? Yes, it can. And apparently it is.

The Republican base seems to demand a certain kind of red meat that the candidates are happy to provide. Never mind, for a moment, what that says about the the candidates' character. What does it say about their platforms, their positions, their solutions, their leadership? If you routinely attack your opponent with made up assertions, could it be that your cupboard is bare? That the emperor has no clothes? That, in fact, you have nothing to offer? After all, if Obama is the stupendous disaster you make him out to be, there should be no end to the truthful, factual critiques you could make. Where are they?

Update: In the months since I wrote this, gas prices have fallen substantially. Do you think Newt will credit President Obama? Hmm??

Copyright (C) 2012 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved