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Scot Lehigh

True irony: Bush on personal responsibility

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Scot Lehigh
June 4, 2008

TO THE LIST of President Bush's many shortcomings, we can now add another failing.

Our poor president - no, make that our exceedingly poor president - is obviously irony impaired.

How else could he go to Furman University on Saturday and celebrate his time-tested - and now, time-graded and time-failed - theme of personal responsibility? Unless, that is, he intended to offer himself as a counter-example to the idealistic young collegians.

In his address, the president highlighted some important truths. Like, say, this: "You have responsibilities to your fellow citizens, your country, your family, and yourself." And this: "A culture of responsibility means being accountable to your families and to yourself."

His discourse on responsibility and accountability came just as the political world was aflutter over the divulgences, if an acknowledgement of something already well-established can be so described, from former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan. Prominent among them is that the president and his team engaged in a propaganda campaign to sell the nation on war with Iraq.

That war has turned up neither the weapons of mass destruction the administration insisted were there nor operational ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Still, the president continues to assert he was right in launching the invasion.

Ah, responsibility.

What's more, this is a president whose administration spent years ignoring global warming, while muzzling government scientists and editing government reports to weaken asserted links between greenhouse gases and climate change. In his second term, Bush has finally offered a halfhearted acknowledgment of the problem, but without embracing serious solutions. That, obviously, will be left to the next president.

But here's what took the commencement cake: Bush's warning to graduates to avoid amassing too much debt.

"You can strengthen our country by showing fiscal discipline in your lives," he said. "It may sound funny coming from a visitor from Washington, D.C., but it's important to your futures and the future of our country."

Although that quote suggests the president has some inkling that he's an unlikely messenger on this topic, it didn't keep him from offering this counsel: "My advice to you is not to dig a financial hole that you can't get out of. Live within your means."

What, exactly, can one say to that? Except this: "I guess it's a case of do as I say and not as I do," says Bob Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan deficit watchdog.

It is indeed. Having inherited a budget in surplus and a declining national debt, this president pushed through a series of tax cuts and presided over spending increases that have left us awash in red ink.

Publicly held federal debt has gone from $3.4 trillion when Bush took office to $5.3 trillion. Add in the trillions owed to government accounts like the Social Security Trust Fund, and our total national debt is now $9.4 trillion, up from $5.6 trillion in 2000. That's more than $30,000 for every American citizen. Meanwhile, since 2001, long-term unfunded liabilities and commitments have ballooned from about $20 trillion to more than $50 trillion.

"We have gone from a point where we had current and projected budget surpluses to where we have large and growing deficits," says former comptroller general David Walker, who led the Government Accountability Office from late 1998 until March of this year. "And we have gone from a point where we were projected to pay off all the federal debt and have fiscal sustainability for 40-plus years to a point where we have large and mounting debt burdens and the simulation model that is used by GAO to project fiscal sustainability crashes in about 40 years."

It will take years to work our way out of the hole we're now in. A significant part of the sacrifice will fall on the young, who as taxpayers will have to help repay the debt rung up in this era, even as they build their own lives.

And make no mistake: Much of the blame for that burden lies with a president who prefers preaching responsibility to practicing it.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.

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