Jacob Heilbrunn

Don't Turn Obama Into a Dictator

President Obama's campaign has just announced that it has already hauled in $86 million for the 2012 presidential campaign. The combined haul of his Republican challengers is around $35 million. Perhaps Obama should make a personal loan from his coffers to help stanch the federal budget deficit. At the rate he's going, he may well raise close to $1 billion.

But it's clear that the president has now morphed into a budget cutter when it comes to the deficit. Sen. Mitch McConnell's proposal to essentially grant Obama dictatorial powers to raise the debt ceiling unilaterally has raised howls of outrage and cries of treason in Republican ranks. One Red State blogger has suggested McConnell be burned in effigy. The proposal would, in effect, give Obama the power to raise the debt ceiling without having to make any cuts in spending. Which suggests that the Republican leadership--as opposed to the Tea Party base--really has no appetite for passing even the cuts that Obama has already proposed. They don't want to anger seniors. But McConnell's proposal could be extended ad nauseam. If Congress is willing to cede its constitutional authority to the president on the debt ceiling, then it is laying the groundwork for a dictatorship. The job of Congress is to legislate, not to emasculate itself. Given its timorousness in challenging Obama's incursion into Libya, which he steadfastly denies is a war even as he bombards the country, Congress is cutting a pretty sorry figure.

The one area where cuts really do loom, ironically enough, is the defense budget. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has announced that al Qaeda is, to all intents and purposes, a defunct enterprise. His message on his tour of Afghanistan and Iraq was that the United States is pulling out as quickly as possible. "This damn country has a hell of a lot of resources," he noted about Iraq, which has been mulling over the purchase of several dozen F-16s from the U.S. (which might help lower another deficit, the trade one). As the Los Angeles Times reports, Panetta is fully in sync with Obama's aim to cut military commitments and expenditures:

he is intent on setting limits — on his military commanders, on the expectations of America's allies and on the defense budget — in an effort to gradually shift the Pentagon from a permanent war footing. "We need to prevail in these conflicts and bring them to a responsible end," he told soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division in Iraq. He thus echoed President Obama's description of his plan to withdraw 33,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the fall of 2012 as a "responsible" drawdown.

The message is clear: just as Robert Gates warned America's NATO members that America can't foot all the bills, so Panetta is seeking to usher in a new era of austerity. This won't sit well with unrepentant hawks who point to a variety of threats. But perhaps the most threatening prospect America faces isn't a military one but its own profligacy. The U.S. became entrenched in the mindset that it could fight anywhere and everywhere over the past decade. Now its new credo is retrenchment.