President Obama's speech today was an excellent public policy lecture, a compelling discourse on the role of government, and an impassioned defense of the progressive entitlement state, which came under assault in Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to unwind Medicare and Medicaid. How was it as a policy speech?
Before I answer that question, let's take a step back.
The president wants to solve the deficit crisis, but the term "deficit crisis" is a misnomer. There is not one but two distinct deficit crises, and they require two distinct solutions.
The first deficit crisis is the progeny of the recession. The U.S. government in on pace to pile up debt equal to nine-tenths of the economy by 2020. This is the result of low tax revenue and high deficit-financed spending to fill the holes in state and family budgets after the credit crunch.
A ten-year crisis requires a ten-year plan. Fixing Medicare is not a ten-year plan. Fixing Social Security is not a ten-year plan. But what we can do starting immediately, if we choose to, is raise taxes and cut domestic spending. That's why a ten-year solution to the crisis will fall on domestic spending cuts and tax increases that are gradual and broad. Gradual means the deficit reduction should phase in as the recession fades out. Broad means we need to put everything "on the table" (I'm tired of the term, but can't think of a better one now).
How does the president do with the first crisis? Well, the rhetoric was broad, but the plan was often narrow. The president proposed $750 billion in domestic cuts but listed few examples. He asked for $400 billion in defense cuts, but he kept the details a secret. Broad strokes, indeed. But the president abandoned the principle of broadness when he called for $2 trillion in taxes to be raised from the top 2% of taxpayers. This comes on top of Medicare tax increases on the same crowd to help fund the Affordable Care Act.
Don't get me wrong: taxes must go up on the richest Americans. But that's not all. They should go up on the upper-middle class and the middle class, too. The president asked for Americans to share responsibility in the budget. Asking 3 million filers to pay for the other 300 million Americans in perpetuity isn't what shared responsibility looks like. It's an invitation for accusations of class warfare.
The second deficit crisis comes later, when the Baby Boomers have retired and our health care problem becomes a cartoonish disaster. Either health care needs to get cheaper or the government pays for less of it. Paul Ryan says we should get Washington out of the insurance business. Obama's plan is more nuanced. He schedules hundreds of billions in Medicare cuts while giving technocrats a chance to push down costs, practitioners a chance to experiment with innovative treatments, and consumers a chance to buy insurance more transparently. It's a plan I mostly like, and it's much better than Ryan's abandoning all efforts to change the system in favor of rationing.
The upshot: This was a strong speech with sharp words and soft policy details. But the president's plan to win the future on the back of the top 2% could use revisiting, not only because it's unsellable in Washington, but also because it's not a very good idea.
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