I’ve seen this movie before: Barack meet Dave…

The 44th President of the United States gathers his cabinet around him.  The budget deficit is soaring.  The only way they can keep the programs that are most important is to roll up their sleeves and start cutting.  The President leads the way.  It is painful for all but cuts are found.  SAME SCENE – ...

586597_090420_Kevin+Kline+in+Dave.jpeg2.jpg
586597_090420_Kevin+Kline+in+Dave.jpeg2.jpg

The 44th President of the United States gathers his cabinet around him.  The budget deficit is soaring.  The only way they can keep the programs that are most important is to roll up their sleeves and start cutting.  The President leads the way.  It is painful for all but cuts are found. 

SAME SCENE - LATER

Dave's tie is loosened at his throat and there are notes spread
out around him. The Cabinet leans forward in their seats.

The 44th President of the United States gathers his cabinet around him.  The budget deficit is soaring.  The only way they can keep the programs that are most important is to roll up their sleeves and start cutting.  The President leads the way.  It is painful for all but cuts are found. 

SAME SCENE – LATER

Dave’s tie is loosened at his throat and there are notes spread
out around him. The Cabinet leans forward in their seats.

                      DAVE
          Okay, so that makes…
               (whispering)
          … Two, eighty-four, carry the three…
               (pause)
          … Three hundred and fifty-six million.
               (looking up with a smile)
          … And that means we can keep the
          program.

WIDE ANGLE – CABINET ROOM

The entire room bursts into applause.

All right, when it happened in the movies, the fictional 44th President of the United States managed to cut three and a half times what the real one set as the goal for his first full cabinet meeting. But that’s Hollywood.  Everything is bigger than real life.  Except the deficit, of course.  The deficit today is 5 times as high as it was in the movie “Dave.”  Which means proportionally, President Obama’s proposed budget cuts from his Monday meeting are actually 17 and a half times smaller than the ones Kevin Kline made relative to the budget.

But the two scenes do have more than just an approach in common more than discussions that both likely will touch on wasteful defense spending and how much we should spend propping up Detroit, they are both intended as plot devices more than they are actual fiscal policy. Both are designed (by writers) to help us feel good about a fledgling president. Neither really is going to do much to actually fix the budget problems in question.

Of course, in the case of Dave, not only does he make more progress, but he also seems to be getting better advice.  

INT. PRESIDENTIAL DINING ROOM – LATER

It is a large oak-lined room in the private residence.  Dave
and Murray sit on either side of a huge dining table with
papers strewn all around them.  In front of Murray sits a
large, leather bound volume of the federal budget.

                      MURRAY
          I gotta tell ya, Dave.  I’ve been going
          over this a bunch of times and a lot
          of this stuff just doesn’t add up.
               (beat)
          Who does these books?

                      DAVE
          I’m not sure.

                      MURRAY
          I just think they make this stuff a
          lot more complicated than it has to
          be.

                      DAVE
          I’m not surprised.
               (beat)
          Can we save anywhere?

                      MURRAY
          Well, yeah.  But you gotta start making
          some choices.

                      DAVE
          Choices?

                      MURRAY
          You know — priorities.
               (thinking)

          
I’ll admit, I sometimes wonder whether Barack Obama is getting that kind of common sensical advice. Listening to Larry Summers on “Meet the Press” yesterday as he sought to persuade the audience that it would be possible to actually start achieving President Obama’s announced long-term deficit reductions without increasing taxes, I felt as though it was the movie president and his advisors who were more grounded in reality.  Empty gestures like $100 million dollar cuts in the face of a two trillion dollar deficit, debt projections surpassing $15 trillion and tens of billions tossed around weekly to bailout programs don’t give me that feeling. 

And it is not, of course, that Summers and Obama do not know that they will have to increase taxes to cut the deficit in half as promised or to eat into the national debt. They know. They are just playing pretend for the cameras.  That makes it worse because if we wanted to play pretend we could just watch any of the actors who have played presidents in the movies… or in real life. 

Of course, part of the problem, to be fair, is that the other party in America is certain to jump on Team Obama at the first sign they are honestly acknowledging that the only way out for the U.S. economy is a combination of growth, budget cuts and tax increases. But just like movie presidents, real ones need to show some gumption and stand up to their critics. What’s more, no movie president in history has ever faced an opposition more laughably inept than the current Republican Party. (For a really exceptional example of their buffoonery watch John Boehner try to deny global warming on “This Week.”  He is dangerously clueless.)

The secret for movie presidents and real ones is the same: you have be believable. The movie “Dave” did not work unless you believed that America would accept a guy with no prior experience as a better president than his predecessors simply because he seemed to offer a fresh change, who could connect with crowds better than his predecessor. While such a plot is far-fetched… ok, never mind. Who would buy this Hollywood nonsense anyway. But the difference between movie presidents and real ones is even more important: feel good gestures are not enough.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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