On Obama's Debt-and-Deficit Speech

The Atlantic's Clive Crook, whom I ran into in the office coffee shop immediately after he posted his opinions, didn't much like Obama's deficit speech today. "Waste of breath," etc.

I felt differently. I am still preoccupied with the phishing/cyber-security fire drill from earlier today, not yet fully solved; but here are a few quick positive points about what Obama did:

1) He tried to raise the discussion of public/private spending up above the idiot level. The real economic history of the United States, as anyone understands who has studied it outside the confines of a political rally, involves a combination of public and private efforts. We have highways, we have hospitals, we have the Internet, we have an aerospace industry, we have agribusiness, we have biotech, because of the interaction of public investments/standards/regulation and private competition, innovation, profit-seeking, price-reduction, job-creation. It's an obvious truth that has somehow been declared out of bounds in political discussion -- for just one example, see this celebrated Washington Post story on communities that denounce the same public spending that keeps them afloat.

Obama addressed this point not just once but several times in the speech, eg this way early on:

"And so we've built a strong military to keep us secure, and public schools and universities to educate our citizens. We've laid down railroads and highways to facilitate travel and commerce. We've supported the work of scientists and researchers whose discoveries have saved lives, unleashed repeated technological revolutions, and led to countless new jobs and entire new industries. Each of us has benefitted from these investments, and we're a more prosperous country as a result."

And, later on:

"We take responsibility for ourselves, but we also take responsibility for each other; for the country we want and the future that we share. We're a 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 we 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. That's who we are. This is the America that I know."

A genius-level insight? Maybe not. But in today's political discourse, simply restating this reality is something.

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2) Perhaps more remarkably, he also made a cultural, political, even moral point about the role of public efforts in public life. After celebrating Americans' identity as (yes!) "rugged individualists," he said:

"But there's always been another thread running through our history -- a belief that we're all connected, and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation....

Part of this American belief that we're all connected also expresses itself in a conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security and dignity. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff may strike any one of us. "There but for the grace of God go I," we say to ourselves. And so we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment insurance, which protects us against unexpected job loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, those with disabilities. We're a better country because of these commitments. I'll go further. We would not be a great country without those commitments."

Emphasis added. My point is not just that I agree with him, though I do. It's that he did something difficult, rhetorically and intellectually: he cast his point in a form that helps supporters clarify why they agree, and forces opponents to marshal a real counter argument. "No, we would still be great with larger number of poor elderly people, like in China."

3) A nice fun-with-numbers moment, referring (though not by name) to the revered and "serious" Rep. Paul Ryan budget plan:

"They [House Republicans] want to give people like me a $200,000 tax cut that's paid for by asking 33 seniors each to pay $6,000 more in health costs. That's not right. And it's not going to happen as long as I'm President. (Applause.)"

4) And how can I resist praising his light mockery of the idea that "serious" people are in love with the "courageous" Ryan plan:

"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. And I don't think there's anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don't have any clout on Capitol Hill." 

Of course, of course -- this argument is just beginning, and there are lots more details (4 trillion of them?) for the Administration to fill in. There are lots of points I wish the speech had left out, added, or made in a different way. I feel like my head is going to explode every time I hear a comparison between a household budget and the federal budget ("just as you watch your pennies, so we..."); they're not the same. But by the standards of what everyone else has been saying about taxing, spending, debt, investment, and the balance between public and private in America's past and future growth in recent months, this was a positive step.
Minor housekeeping note: the links to the speech text above point to the New York Times site. Party that's because I'm glad to give the NYT traffic. I subscribe to the print version, so I am untroubled by the paywall. Or, I could have used the Atlantic's version, posted before 2pm; or the National Journal's, a few minutes before that. The other reason is that, yet again, the White House's own site is inexplicably slow in getting important documents posted. It is now 5:15pm EDT, three hours after the speech was over. At this moment, there's still no link to it on the "Speeches and Remarks" page of the WhiteHouse.gov site. C'mon! It's not that hard. Yes you can! / Update: now it's there. Official White House speech text link.