President Bush has always been bad with numbers — something we’ve known ever since the 2000 presidential debates against Vice President Al Gore, when he uttered the term “fuzzy math” to counter his opponent’s overwhelming statistical evidence. Of course, it is not completely his fault that numbers are the president’s weakness. The 2000 election, in which one vote on the Supreme Court trumped 500,000 votes cast by the electorate, certainly did not improve his unsound mathematical footing. Unfortunately for the American people, President Bush’s difficulty with digits thoroughly pervaded this year’s State of the Union address. In fact, in order to justify his sweeping policy formula for disaster under the guise of a mandate, it seemed the only number President Bush bothered to consider on Wednesday night was 51 — percent, that is.
We also all know about President Bush’s disdain for the details. People have lauded his “big picture” leadership style, in which he sets the policy objectives and leaves others to the intricacies. I do not mean to say that I disapprove of this big idea approach. Perhaps it is better to have an executive who delegates power appropriately rather than one that inefficiently micromanages.
However, I do have an incredibly strong objection to this president’s leadership style — a style in which big ideas are recklessly flung about and the actual details of policy implementation are completely disregarded. It has been seen time and time again during the Bush Administration on issues including a mission to Mars (when the president outlined a plan but provided little funding to get there) and gay marriage (when the president played up his support for a constitutional amendment that, fortunately, lacked sufficient votes in the Senate).
The 2005 State of the Union address provided a perfect case study of this approach: Big proposals were announced with much fanfare, but the pathways to their implementation remained unlit. I fear that in Wednesday’s address, President Bush’s genuine disinterest in the nuts and bolts of policy coupled with his unbending ideological righteousness plotted a course for America that leads directly to economic ruin. This relates most specifically to the president’s approach of Social Security.
Of course, this is not the first time a chief executive has addressed this issue in a State of the Union address. In 1998, President Clinton tackled the issue of protracting the solvency of Social Security. However, Clinton in 1998 — unlike Bush in 2005 — had enforced strict fiscal discipline and, for the first time in decades, successfully balanced the budget. The United States was on track to eliminate the federal deficit by the year 2013, thereby erasing the cloud that had menacingly hovered over future generations ever since the exponential deficit spending under President Reagan. With the new budget surplus, Clinton warned against irresponsible tax cuts and spending, stating that the entire surplus should be dedicated to “save Social Security first.” Under this plan, Social Security would be solvent well beyond 2050 with guaranteed, uncut benefits. I only wish President Bush had listened to his predecessor’s advice.
Instead, President Bush has called for a remarkably different approach. Forget about avoiding irresponsible tax cuts, as Clinton advised — on Wednesday, President Bush asked Congress to make his 2001 tax cuts permanent. Such a request, coupled with the tremendous expenditure required by American military commitments in Iraq, where the president promised American troops would remain, assures that there is little hope of balancing the budget any time soon. What is most appalling, however, is that on top of all of this, the president now wants to borrow $2 trillion to pay for the restructuring of Social Security. In other words, President Bush wants to eliminate sources of revenue, continue spending the necessary billions for our armed forces, and now wants trillions more to supposedly secure our financial future. Such a proposal is certainly fiscally unsound. Financial security is indeed a noble goal, yet once again, President Bush has directed America toward a glorious destination with no plausible map of how to get there.
In his State of the Union, President Bush presented some big ideas without mentioning their big price tags. While he claims to be providing for our generation’s financial security with his Social Security reform, he is merely saddling our generation with trillions of additional dollars of debt. With 15 percent of the national budget already constrained by interest payments on our debt, the tax cuts and reforms outlined in the State of the Union will only increase that portion tied up to pay interest, thereby imposing fiscal constraints on and economically imperiling future generations.
In 2000, President Bush spoke of “fuzzy math.” Five years later, it’s time he checked his own figures.
Jonathan Menitove is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College.