I’m an unapologetic fan of our president. Wednesday afternoon, he reminded me why.
After weeks of budgetary bluster from the right and premature hysteria from the left, a responsible adult finally stepped into the room and reshaped the terms of the debate over the fiscal future of the nation.
President Obama has often been accused, even by his supporters, of absenting himself from the public argument over important issues. At times, I’ve been one of those supportive complainers. For example, according to the critics, he “dithered” before committing to involvement in Libya. On this even bigger issue, the complaint was that he appointed a commission and then didn’t embrace its conclusions. He allowed the Republicans to jump out with their own plan for deficit reduction.
Wednesday, we were reminded of the virtue of purposeful procrastination. Delay has allowed him – and us – to digest the package of proposals from the Simpson-Bowles Commission, many of which wound up in his speech. Delay gave him – and us – time to appreciate the truly radical nature of what even some thoughtful Republicans are taking care to call the “Ryan plan” for cutting the deficit by rewarding the rich and penalizing the poor.
Having watched the speech and with the text in front of me, I’m struck by its tone, its content and its vision. It was Mr. Obama at his best, calling on us to be our best.
This speech was, as he said of the ongoing debate itself, “about more than just cutting and spending. It’s about the kind of future that we want. It’s about the kind of country that we believe in.”
First, like the university lecturer he used to be, he provided a bit of historical context, explaining the contradictory components of our national character:
“More than citizens of any other country, we are rugged individualists, a self-reliant people with a healthy skepticism of too much government.” On the other hand, “We believe, in the words of our first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, that through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves.”
Then he described Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposal, which has become the official House Republican position:
“This vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America. Ronald Reagan’s own budget director said there’s nothing ‘serious’ or ‘courageous’ 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.”
(In fact, the analyses I’ve read point out that about two-thirds of the savings in the Ryan plan come from programs that mainly serve the poor while most of the tax cut benefits redound to those at the top of the income pyramid.)
The Obama plan, by contrast, actually intends to reduce the rate of increase in health care costs, builds on the defense savings already initiated by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and recaptures about a trillion dollars from the richest by letting their tax cuts expire.
Mr. Obama’s idea of America is, he summarized, “a vision where we live within our means while still investing in our future; where everyone makes sacrifices but no one bears all the burden; where we provide a basic measure of security for our citizens and we provide rising opportunity for our children.”
Lofty rhetoric, you say, but where are the specifics? And what are its prospects of being realized?
Contrary to some of the criticisms, there are specifics, many coming from that no-longer-ignored Simpson-Bowles report. But this was less a laundry list than a statement of principles. Now we know where the negotiation begins. As Mr. Obama said, he doesn’t expect the outcome “to look exactly like the approach I laid out today. This is a democracy; that’s not how things work.”
Congressional Republicans were preemptively taking taxes off the table even before he spoke. Rep. Ryan and others were shown listening glumly to the speech, but surely some of them understand that if the democracy is to work, they can’t have all take and no give.
The rest of us have to hope that on Wednesday, Mr. Obama wasn’t the only grownup in the room.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.