What Obama didn’t say precisely on The Late Show

In a recent appearance on David Letterman’s The Late Show, President Barack Obama said: “I don’t know precisely what the debt was.”  The key word here is precisely.  When Obama says he doesn’t know precisely what the debt was those of us who watched former President Bill Clinton for eight years can’t help but harken back to the line: “that depends on what the meaning of is is”.  We can’t help but think of a president attempting to answer a question with a non-answer that attempts to avoid the trap of what the answer may entail.  He doesn’t know precisely what the debt was, Obama is saying, not down to the penny.

“Okay,” a decent interviewer would’ve said.  “What was it in round figures?”  The word precisely allowed Obama a “chicken-exit” that Letterman allowed him through without asking a follow up.  While I don’t expect the non-journalist, liberal talk show host to redirect the president, I do expect the resultant media coverage to hound and pound Obama for the non-answer answer in the manner they hounded and pounded President George H.W. Bush (GHWB) when he confessed that he didn’t know what a gallon of milk cost.

An analysis of the cost of a gallon of milk shows that it is irrelevant to the general knowledge that a president should have.  For political purposes, GWHB probably should have had this knowledge at his disposal to show that he could relate to the common man, but if a president does not know the cost of a gallon of milk he can still do his job without debilitating effects.  The cost of a gallon of milk is also irrelevant to a president’s policies, or at least it’s more irrelevant than the national debt.  The question to GHWB was obviously a “gotcha” question from a liberal commentator trying to help out his favored candidate’s candidacy.  The question from Letterman to Obama was a question from a liberal commentator trying to impress his favorite candidate without consideration for the larger consequences.

The liberal Larry King’s question may have shown GHWB to be a Washington insider that had had Washington insider jobs for most of his life, but it wasn’t a direct commentary on the job he did as president to that point.  The answer Obama gave was, in my humble opinion, a direct commentary on the job he did however, and it should bother Americans that Obama simply shrugged the question off with an “I don’t know.”

Watching the president shrug the question of the debt off and then go on to say that it’s not an immediate concern, when he called President George W. Bush unpatriotic for his administration’s spending habits is at least contradictory.  Also, if George W. Bush had shrugged off the question with an “I don’t know” in accumulating his $4.899 trillion dollar addition to the debt, you can bet the media would be tarring him as an uncaring cad, and rightfully so.  Such a poorly chosen symbolic gesture would’ve illustrated to us all that it was not a primary, immediate concern of his, as it did with Obama.  It should also beg the question that if $16.1 trillion dollars can be shrugged off in the immediate, how much more will it take before Obama becomes alarmed?

There is some confusion on the exact question Letterman was asking.  I’ve heard some commentators say that they believe that Letterman was asking what the current debt was at the time of the Republican National Convention.  I’ve heard others say that they believe the question centered around the debt figure that occurred when when George W. Bush left office.  The confusion seems to be centered around the use of the word “was” in the question.    “Now do you remember what that debt was?” is the question Letterman asks immediately after Obama’s statements regarding what he inherited from Bush.  If it is a correct analysis that Letterman’s question was referring to the debt when Bush left office, then the answer is $10.8 trillion.  George W. Bush added $4.899 trillion to the debt, or $309 billion a year.

These figures outraged candidate Barack Obama, and he recognized it as a “sign of leadership failure.”  Candidate Obama went onto say: “The problem is that the way Bush has done it in the last eight years is to take out a credit card from the Bank of China in the name of our children, driving up our national debt from $5 trillion from the first 42 presidents.  No. 43 (Bush) added $4 trillion by his lonesome.  So we now have over $9 trillion of debt that we are going to have to pay back.  $30,000 for every man, woman, and child. That’s irresponsible, that’s unpatriotic.”

To rectify this leadership failure and lack of patriotism, President Barack Obama added $4.939 trillion to the debt (in four years, as opposed to Bush’s eight) with an average annual deficit of $1.311 trillion, or $51,000 for every man, woman, and child.

President Barack Obama later came to the “understanding” that presidents have to add to the debt: “When you’re a senator, traditionally what’s happened is, (they think) this is always a lousy vote.  Nobody likes to be tagged as having increased the debt limit — for the United States by a trillion dollars.  As president, you start realizing, you know what, we, we can’t play around with this stuff.  This is the full faith and credit of the United States.”{1}

Barack Obama, and other Democrats, will tell you that Obama inherited much of his debt from the previous administration.  If that’s true, shouldn’t Bush be able to make the same charge of President Bill Clinton?  No, say Democrats, Bush inherited a surplus from Clinton.  The surplus in deficit spending occurred in the final year of Clinton’s tenure, but after totaling up the entire eight years of Clinton’s tenure, we find that he did end up adding $1.6 trillion a year to the deficit with an average annual deficit of $200 billion a year.{2}  If Obama’s supporters are going to try to sell the fact that it was the lag of the Bush Administration’s policies that makes up a majority of the current debt, then they will have to admit that there was a lag of some of Clinton’s policies that added to Bush’s final figures.

Another complaint a Democrat will make is that the Republicans are now in charge of Congress, and Congress is in charge of the purse strings in Washington.  Fair enough, but if one were to look at the chart in the link below that provides detail on the deficits and the debts on a year by year basis, in millions, and with a graph of the various sessions of Congress, they will see that when the Republicans ruled Congress in the Clinton years, after 1994, the deficit went from $281,232 a year to $17,907 a year.  Under the Bush Administration, the Republican Congress took the debt from that $17,907 a year deficit to a $500,679 deficit, but when the Democrats took control of Congress, in 2006, the deficit leapt from that $500,679 deficit to a $1,228,717 deficit. {3}

Long story short, President Barack Obama misremembered the debt when he took office, because quoting the actual figures would’ve brought many of his failures to light.  If he “remembered” that the debt was $10.8 when he took office, and it’s now $16.1 trillion that would be a damning calculation for him, and some might say unpatriotic.  The question probably caught him off guard considering that it was a soft venue, with a good, liberal buddy, and Obama probably never dreamed that he would be hit with such a trap question.  During the commercial break, he probably leaned into Dave and said, “Don’t make fun of my ears, and don’t bring up the debt anymore.  I’m sensitive about those things.” {4}



{3} http://home.adelphi.edu/sbloch/deficits.html



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