The president used the occasion of yesterday's policy speech to begin to lay out his vision and sketch the contours of the ideas he will run against
In his speech at George Washington University on the deficit, President Obama joined the 2012 race with a robust defense of the philosophy underlying the America's existing social programs, couched in gentle terms and language relatively free of political jargon. This was not one of his more emotional speeches, but it didn't have to be, and it was far from professorial. By laying out in firm language what he would and would not support in negotiations about deficit reduction, he sounded the part of judgmental moral arbiter -- the type of person who, with a simply stated line, quietly calls up the sense of decency of the assembled, or shames them.
A national presidential campaign is a contest about visions of national identity as much as policy, and Obama used the occasion of this midday policy speech to begin to lay out his vision and sketch the contours of the ideas he will run against until he has a named foil a year or more from now.
"A serious plan... will require us to choose a vision of the America we want to see five and ten and twenty years down the road," Obama said.
The "vision ... championed by Republicans in the House of Representatives and embraced by several of their party's presidential candidates.... would lead to a fundamentally different America than the one we've known throughout most of our history," he said.
"The America I know is generous and compassionate; a land of opportunity and optimism. We take responsibility for ourselves and each other; for the country we want and the future we share. We are the nation that built a railroad across a continent and brought light to communities shrouded in darkness. We sent a generation to college on the GI bill and saved millions of seniors from poverty with Social Security and Medicare. We have led the world in scientific research and technological breakthroughs that have transformed millions of lives," he said.
"This is who we are," Obama added, echoing lightly those Chrysler ads filmed in Detroit that proclaim, "This is what we do."
"This is the America I know," he said. "We don't have to choose between a future of spiraling debt and one where we forfeit investments in our people and our country. To meet our fiscal challenge, we will need to make reforms. We will all need to make sacrifices. But we do not have to sacrifice the America we believe in. And as long as I'm President, we won't."
A 70% cut to clean energy. A 25% cut in education. A 30% cut in transportation. Cuts in college Pell Grants that will grow to more than $1,000 per year. That's what they're proposing. These aren't the kind of cuts you make when you're trying to get rid of some waste or find extra savings in the budget. These aren't the kind of cuts that Republicans and Democrats on the Fiscal Commission proposed. These are the kind of cuts that tell us we can't afford the America we believe in. And they paint a vision of our future that's deeply pessimistic.
It's a vision that says if our roads crumble and our bridges collapse, we can't afford to fix them. If there are bright young Americans who have the drive and the will but not the money to go to college, we can't afford to send them. Go to China and you'll see businesses opening research labs and solar facilities. South Korean children are outpacing our kids in math and science. Brazil is investing billions in new infrastructure and can run half their cars not on high-priced gasoline, but biofuels. And yet, we are presented with a vision that says the United States of America - the greatest nation on Earth - can't afford any of this.
It's a vision that says America can't afford to keep the promise we've made to care for our seniors. It says that ten years from now, if you're a 65 year old who's eligible for Medicare, you should have to pay nearly $6,400 more than you would today. It says instead of guaranteed health care, you will get a voucher. And if that voucher isn't worth enough to buy insurance, tough luck - you're on your own. Put simply, it ends Medicare as we know it.
This is a vision that says up to 50 million Americans have to lose their health insurance in order for us to reduce the deficit. And who are those 50 million Americans? Many are someone's grandparents who wouldn't be able afford nursing home care without Medicaid. Many are poor children. Some are middle-class families who have children with autism or Down's syndrome. Some are kids with disabilities so severe that they require 24-hour care. These are the Americans we'd be telling to fend for themselves.
Worst of all, this is a vision that says even though America can't afford to invest in education or clean energy; even though we can't afford to care for seniors and poor children, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy. Think about it. In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90% of all working Americans actually declined. The top 1% saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. And that's who needs to pay less taxes? They want to give people like me a two hundred thousand dollar tax cut that's paid for by asking thirty three seniors to each pay six thousand dollars more in health costs? That's not right, and it's not going to happen as long as I'm President.
The fact is, their vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America. As Ronald Reagan's own budget director said, there's nothing "serious" or "courageous" about this plan. There's nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. There's nothing courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don't have any clout on Capitol Hill. And this is not a vision of the America I know.
Finally, he issued a firm no to Paul Ryan's proposed changes to the entitlement programs:
let me be absolutely clear: I will preserve these health care programs as a promise we make to each other in this society. I will not allow Medicare to become a voucher program that leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry, with a shrinking benefit to pay for rising costs. I will not tell families with children who have disabilities that they have to fend for themselves. We will reform these programs, but we will not abandon the fundamental commitment this country has kept for generations.
All of this just serves as a reminder that Obama is a better orator in moments of crisis and when campaigning than during the hum-drum back-and-forth of the day to day. Clive Crook called the speech a waste of time and objects that:
There was no sign of anything worth calling a plan to curb borrowing faster than in the budget. He offered no more than a list of headings under which $4 trillion of deficit reduction (including the $2 trillion already in his budget) might be found--domestic non-security spending, defense, health costs, and tax reform. Fine, sure. But what he said was devoid of detail. He spent more of his time stressing what he would not agree to than describing clear proposals of his own.
But I think the vagueness is kind of the point. The speech allowed Obama to make the case that the alternative the GOP is presenting is unpalatable. If that's the main take home for listeners, he will have won.
Photo credit: Associated Press