"You don't have to be a deficit hawk to be disturbed by the growing gap between revenues and expenses," said Sen. Barack Obama during a Nov. 3, 2005, debate on the Senate floor. At the time, Obama had been a senator for less than a year and the federal budget deficit was in fact shrinking, from $248 billion in fiscal 2006 to $160 billion in fiscal 2007. Still, Obama seemed deeply concerned about the deficit, and he appeared to believe it when he said the only way to close the shortfalls was to force Congress to pay for what it spends.
A few months later, on March 16, 2006, Obama returned to the same theme -- "You don't have to be a deficit hawk ..." -- in a sobering floor speech as the Senate considered whether to raise the nation's debt ceiling from $8.184 trillion to $8.965 trillion. "The fact that we are here today to debate raising America's debt limit is a sign of leadership failure," Obama said. "It is a sign that the U.S. government can't pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our government's reckless fiscal policies."
The deficit, Obama argued, handcuffed government in many ways. The money paid in interest on the debt was money that could not be spent on education, transportation, disaster relief or many other worthy causes. And borrowing so much from foreign countries meant America's economy would be "tied to the whims of foreign leaders" who might not wish the best for the United States.
"Increasing America's debt weakens us domestically and internationally," Obama concluded. "I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America's debt limit."
Obama made good on his promise. Joined by then-Sen. Joe Biden, Senate Democratic leaders Harry Reid, Richard Durbin, Charles Schumer and indeed every other Democrat, Obama voted against raising the debt ceiling. Republicans, who controlled the Senate with a Republican in the White House, voted for the increase, which became law.
Later, as president, Obama admitted his '06 debt ceiling vote was a political maneuver. "That was just an example of a new senator making what is a political vote as opposed to doing what was important for the country," Obama told ABC in April 2011. "As president, you start realizing, 'You know what? We can't play around with this stuff.' "
These days, Obama's partisans defend that '06 vote by pointing out that Democrats weren't in control back then and couldn't have actually blocked a debt limit increase even if they had wanted to. So Obama could "play around" with the vote.
But did Obama's words sound like a man who was playing around? In that '06 Senate speech, he made a cogent and convincing case against deficits. If he didn't believe a word of it, he didn't show it.
And now, under his own administration, the problem is so much worse. The budget deficit that headed from $248 billion to $160 billion in 2006 and 2007 shot up to $458 billion in 2008 and $1.4 trillion in 2009 as the economic crisis took hold and Obama became president.
In 2010, the deficit was $1.3 trillion, then another $1.3 trillion in 2011, then $1.1 trillion in 2012. It's projected to be above $1 trillion again in 2013, extending Obama's record of presiding over unprecedented trillion-plus deficits.
And now Obama, who in 2006 balked at raising the debt ceiling to $8.965 trillion, is demanding that Congress, without question, negotiation, or condition, raise the debt ceiling somewhere far above its current $16.4 trillion.
"There is ... no ready, credible solution, other than Congress either give me the authority to raise the debt ceiling, or exercise the responsibility that they have kept for themselves and raise the debt ceiling," Obama said at his news conference Monday. "We are not a deadbeat nation."
But the interest on the debt, now vastly higher than when Obama addressed the issue in 2006, is still money that can't be used for education, transportation and other priorities. And the money borrowed from other countries, also vastly more than in '06, leaves the U.S. even more at the whims of foreign leaders.
Did the president believe what he said back then, or does he believe what he is saying now? Who knows? But perhaps the Barack Obama of 2013 should listen to the Barack Obama of 2006. He was an emerging Democratic superstar back then. And no wonder -- he made a lot of sense.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.