Populist Obama Defends Shared Sacrifice in Deficit Speech

Populist Obama Defends Shared Sacrifice in Deficit Speech

Populist Obama Defends Shared Sacrifice in Deficit Speech

The president is only now realizing that creating jobs, defending the safety net and appealing to shared sacrifice is good policy and good politics.


Most of the deficit plans circulating around Washington, whether from Paul Ryan or the Senate’s Gang of Six, call for “shared sacrifice,” yet promote anything but. In reality, these plans allow the rich and powerful to keep what they have while asking those who depend on government—the poor, the elderly, the working and middle class—to make do with less.

President Obama has, at times, reluctantly exacerbated this deficit inequality by acquiescing to spending cuts, flirting with paring back the social safety net and winning no corresponding revenue increases from those who can afford to pay more. The president also made a terrible mistake by prioritizing deficit reduction over job creation for the past year, and bizarrely embracing the Republican fantasy that cutting government will somehow create jobs (in fact, the opposite has occurred—the larger the cuts to government, the more jobs lost).

In recent weeks, however, Obama has sought to change the conversation in Washington away from austerity and toward job creation and real shared sacrifice. His jobs plan, though not big or bold enough, represented an important step in the right direction. And the plan he introduced today to reduce the deficit struck a populist chord, asking the rich to pay their fair share. “We shouldn’t balance the budget on the backs of the poor and middle class,” Obama said in the Rose Garden this morning.

A few of the key lines:

“Middle class families shouldn’t pay higher taxes than millionaires and billionaires.”

“I reject the idea that asking a hedge fund manager to pay the same tax rate as a teacher or a plumber is class warfare.”

“This is not class warfare. It’s math.”

Ezra Klein summarizes the plan:

Let’s start with what’s in President Obama’s deficit plan: $1.5 trillion in higher taxes, $1.1 trillion in reduced war spending, $1 trillion in non-defense discretionary spending cuts from the debt-ceiling deal, $600 billion in cuts to mandatory spending (of which more than $300 billion will come from Medicare and Medicaid), and $430 billion in reduced interest payments.

Now let’s look at what’s not in President Obama’s deficit plan: There are no cuts to Social Security. There’s no rise in the Medicare retirement age. Instead, the headline policy is so-called the “Buffett rule,” a tax reform principle that holds that millionaires should not pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. Moreover, says a senior administration official, Obama issue a veto threat against “any bill that takes one dime from the Medicare benefits seniors rely on without asking the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations to pay their fair share.”

The core of this plan, in other words, is not a major concession to the GOP, or a high-profile display of the Obama administration’s independence from party. It’s a populist proposal for increasing taxes on the rich, and a veto threat against cutting Medicare benefits without increasing taxes on the rich.

At first glance, progressive groups liked what they heard.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus:

We stand with President Obama to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid from Republican attacks on the benefits that have built and sustained the middle class. We applaud the President’s good-faith efforts to address the real drivers of our national deficit: tax breaks for wealthy elites, two wars, giveaways to big corporations, and the ensuing Republican recession.


For months, hundreds of thousands of members of the American Dream Movement have been urging Washington to focus on creating jobs and making our tax system work for all Americans, not just the super rich. Today, we’re glad to see this message reach the White House. Americans need jobs not cuts, paid for by making millionaires and corporations pay their fair share. The Tea Party led Republicans in Congress have made their position very clear. They want to eliminate Medicare as we know it just so they can protect tax breaks for the rich, all the while doing nothing to create jobs.

The only way out of the economic hole we are in is to put Americans back to work. The President has laid out a clear vision to do that. Any Republicans, and Democrats, who oppose these common sense, hugely popular proposals will be standing in the way of a real recovery.

Of course, the super-committee still has the real power in this debate, which is why Obama vowed to veto any plan that only cuts spending without raising revenue on the wealthy. He could go further and vow to veto any proposal that doesn’t stimulate the economy and create jobs (or, inversely, any proposal that would cost jobs). “We are not going to have a one-sided deal that hurts the folks who are most vulnerable,” the president said.

In the past, Republicans have simply ignored Obama’s calls to raise revenue and demanded only spending cuts, which Obama and Democrats have unhappily agreed to. Speaker Boehner is doing that once again. But Obama is saying, in essence, that this time will be different. Enough is enough. For once, he’s negotiating from a position of relative strength. We’ll see how long it lasts. Remember, if the super-committee doesn’t reach an agreement, across-the-board spending cuts will kick in.

Washington is still way too focused on cutting the deficit at the expense of creating jobs. The president’s rhetoric and actions helped get us into this predicament. Belatedly, however, the president seems to realize that creating jobs, defending the social safety net and appealing to shared sacrifice is both good policy and good politics.

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