Barack Obama Is Not the “Ice Cream President”

There’s an email making the rounds that tells a story about two little girls who run for class president in grade school. One girl works hard, runs a good campaign, and promises to do her best if elected. The other girl promises to give everyone ice cream. The teacher asks the children how they’ll pay for the ice cream. They have no idea, but they vote for the ice cream girl anyway.

That, says the email, is how Barack Obama won the election. He promised to give away free stuff that we can’t afford.

Bill O’Reilly got the ball rolling on this theory when he said, “It’s not a traditional America anymore, and there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama.”

Earlier that day, a Romney supporter told me that he expected his candidate to lose because Obama “bought” votes by “giving away” food stamps and welfare.

We have such short memories.

It was the Republican president George W. Bush who expanded eligibility for food stamps in the 2002 farm bill. It was 99 Republican representatives who voted to expand the program further in the 2008 farm bill. And it was that same Republican president who waived one of the work requirements for 32 states in November 2008.

That’s why the food stamp program added more recipients under Bush than it did under Obama.

The welfare claim is even more ridiculous. We may not remember the food stamp expansion under Bush, but surely we remember welfare reform under Bill Clinton. In 1996, Congress ended “welfare as we know it” and replaced it with “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families” (TANF), a program whose budget hasn’t changed in 16 years. It was $16.6 billion in 1996, and it’s $16.6 billion today.

In the year before welfare reform, 4.7 million Americans received assistance from the program. Today, only 2 million receive assistance from TANF.

When TANF was created, 68 percent of families with children in poverty received welfare. Today, only 27 percent get it.

Low-income entitlement spending has increased, but it would’ve increased under any president. Most of it is what economists call “automatic stabilizers” because they automatically increase during recessions. More people become unemployed. More people fall into poverty. More people lose their health insurance. So more people qualify for unemployment insurance and food stamps and Medicaid.

Since the end of the recession, low-income entitlement spending has been falling. In the next decade, the Congressional Budget Office says that it will return to the same level it’s been for the last forty years: a little more than 1 percent of our nation’s income. If you exclude health care, where costs are rising for completely separate reasons, the CBO expects low-income entitlement spending to fall below its forty-year average in coming years.

The CBO is making these projections, of course, based on the Obama administration’s budget. The president who is supposedly giving away free stuff, it turns out, is actually planning to reduce low-income entitlements.

What’s particularly galling about the Republicans’ argument is that Romney was the candidate who couldn’t explain how he’d pay for everything he was promising. Romney was the candidate who wanted to add a $480 billion tax cut to a $1.3 trillion deficit. Romney was the candidate who wanted to add $200 billion in new Pentagon spending every year.

It was the Republican president George W. Bush who turned a surplus into a deficit. It was Bush who took the nation into two wars while passing two massive tax cuts. It was Bush who signed Medicare Part D without figuring out how to pay for it.

Are we all suffering from a collective bout of amnesia?

The Romney camp’s explanation for their electoral loss fits right in with the broader picture they tried to paint of the Obama presidency. In their world, Barack Obama “has fundamentally changed the relationship between government and the people of this country,” as Jon Stewart put it in his debate with O’Reilly.

But it’s simply not true.

And the truth matters. Obama didn’t win the election because he’s giving away free stuff, and perpetrating such a myth only serves to obscure what’s really going on and what really needs to be done in Washington.


This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

When It’s Not Appropriate to Define “Appropriate”

by Norman Horowitz

When I was at Polygram in the ’80s, we produced a program with the RKO General stations called Eric Severeid’s Chronicle. Eric had been a journalist of note at CBS.

I screened the first program of the series, and I wasn’t thrilled with what I saw. It’s my belief, however, that comments and suggestions about entertainment content by people like me is absolutely what screws up the process.

I had lunch in New York with Eric, and I began the discussion by humbling myself. I told Eric that my news and journalistic experience was essentially meaningless, and that I held him and his career at CBS in the highest regard. I explained that we sold his show to individual stations throughout the country, and that there was to be no editorial control whatsoever. I wanted him to know that his “commentary” could be as outrageous and blunt as he chose to make it.

Eric told me that was never under any restrictions concerning his commentaries at CBS News. Eric continued to be Eric, the program lasted one season, and no one was ever upset by anything Eric said in any of his commentaries.

In my opinion, most broadcast network on-air “journalists” are latter-day versions of Severeid. They exist and report “within the same invisible box.” When they are reporters, they report, and when they are making commentary, it is so designated.

Stephen Colbert, Keith Olbermann, and Jon Stewart, on the other hand, are not journalists. You need not be a journalist to be the “teller of truth.” But what about Anderson Cooper and Nancy Grace? According to The Hollywood Reporter: Continue reading “When It’s Not Appropriate to Define “Appropriate””

Brother, Can You Spare a Kidney?

Sorry that I haven’t posted in a few days. I’ve made a few changes to the site, including a better title than “What to Read” for this and future posts. Enjoy!
  • Kidney Brokers Flourish When Compensation to Potential Donors Is Illegal — Sally Satel – This is an easy way to save lives, and that kind of opportunity is rare. Let’s seize it.
  • North Korea Says It’s Open to New Nuclear Talks — New York Times – Just because the NYT doesn’t think this is important enough to give more than a few paragraphs to doesn’t mean the President shouldn’t jump on the offer.
  • American Health Care — Richard Posner – Becker’s original post, to which Posner replied, is worth a read, but Becker ignores the larger question that David Leonhardt pointed out about prostate cancer a few weeks ago: We can probably achieve just as good results with far less expensive treatments. Posner is right that it’s all about cost-benefit analysis. As indicated by Brownlee in a quote I used in my post on the issue, prostate cancer is one of the areas where we excel, yet we don’t do much better than the United Kingdom. Becker doesn’t mention a lot of other areas where we fall short, including infant mortality, medical errors, customer satisfaction, and yes, even waiting lines (ours are longer than France’s and the Netherlands’). And much of the reason that we make all the behavioral mistakes that Becker says (where he conveniently assigns the blame to us instead of the system) is because our doctors have a financial incentive to give us expensive treatments instead of inexpensive preventative advice. The beauty of “evidence-based medicine” is, if the procedures we use really are so effective at treating a particular disease, then the evidence will reflect that and doctors will be encouraged to use those procedures. The goal, remember, is to reduce unnecessary care, not treatments with a proven track record.
  • Lessons from Sudan for Iraq — Ivan Eland – Bravo to Eland for voicing the solution that Iraq desperately needs!
  • Health Care Premiums Run Amok — David Cutler – When reading estimates about how different proposals will affect you, be careful that they are not using the current premiums, or even inflation-adjusted premiums, as their baseline for the next decade. What matters is how the reform compares to what will happen if we do nothing, which is summarized neatly here by one of America’s best health economists.
  • Jon Stewart: Trust a Comedian to Be Trusted with the Truth — Stuart Fischoff – All too often we don’t appreciate the role of great comedians in society, especially the ones who hold our media accountable. This is a well-deserved, keen analysis by Fischoff. Bravo!
  • Kyrgyzstan: At the Crossroad of Empires, a Mouse Struts — New York Times – The key quote, “neither has publicly condemned the heavy-handed tactics of the Kyrgyz president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who easily won another term last week in an election that his opponents said was rigged,” was thrown in as an afterthought. We get all bent out of shape over Iran and Honduras, but don’t anyone dare say a word about Kyrgyzstan! We’ll let them get away with whatever they want, so long as we can use them for our military bases. And how do the citizens of the Middle East feel about that? I seem to recall a similar situation with Saudi Arabia leading to the emergence of a little group called Al Qaeda… And then we complain when reformers have trouble bringing democratic reform to these nations!
  • Revealed: The Secret Evidence of Global Warming Bush Tried to Hide — The Guardian/UK (via Common Dreams) – Speaks for itself.
  • Are They Allowed to Talk About Drug Patents at the Washington Post? — Dean Baker – Definitely worth consideration, especially given the history and economics of Big Pharma.
  • The Bernanke Reappointment Tour — Calculated Risk – All good points, especially the last sentence. A lot of it depends on whom the President would replace him with. If it’s Larry Summers, then we had better root for Ben Bernanke. If it’s Janet Yellen, we might want to reconsider. Roubini is right, though, that Bernanke prevented the recession from becoming a depression, and that is no small feat.
  • CBO Kills the President’s Medicare Commission Proposal — Keith Hennessey – Hennessey is missing the point. He is right to quote CBO language that criticizes IMAC, but the CBO is not saying IMAC is a bad idea. They are saying it should be even stronger and more powerful, which, if you understand the history and economics of health care, makes perfect sense. (I should also note, for example, that if IMAC only has power over Medicare and not private insurers, then we can expect hospitals to shift resources to milk private insurers as they did after the last major Medicare reimbursement change under Ronald Reagan.)
  • The Good, and Bad, of Heart Care — David Leonhardt – Great example of the economics I describe in my latest post. Leonhardt is also a big fan of Brownlee’s Overtreated, which talks about stents and heart disease in much more detail.

Update: The New York Times has now expanded its article on North Korea. It seems the first draft was just a placeholder until they had time to write a full article. I take back my criticism and reiterate my plea to President Obama to seize this opportunity.