In his inaugural address, President Obama sought to reframe the conception of government in America, breaking from the philosophy of both Bill Clinton (“the era of big government is over”) and Ronald Reagan (“government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”).
"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works—whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified,” Obama said. The president spent much of the first two years of his presidency pushing ambitious programs that would level the playing field in our society—the stimulus bill, healthcare and financial reform, equal pay for women.
But since the 2010 election, Obama has largely abandoned his argument about the constructive role government can and should play in American society. The entire debate since then has been on the GOP’s terms—first came freezes for discretionary spending and federal pay by the Obama administration, followed by a temporary extension of the Bush tax cuts, a budget plan for 2011 that included significant cuts to core Democratic programs, and a budget agreement last week that cut billions of dollars more at the expense of middle-class and low-income Americans.
So after months of feebly compromising with the GOP, it was refreshing to hear Obama blast the budget proposal unveiled by House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan last week in unusually blunt and forthright language.
Here’s the key section of the speech:
One vision has been championed by Republicans in the House of Representatives and embraced by several of their party’s presidential candidates. It’s a plan that aims to reduce our deficit by $4 trillion over the next ten years, and one that addresses the challenge of Medicare and Medicaid in the years after that.
Those are both worthy goals for us to achieve. But the way this plan achieves those goals would lead to a fundamentally different America than the one we’ve known throughout most of our history.
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 to 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.
In contrast, Obama defended progressive governance, saying that without a social safety net, “we would not be a great country.” He called for $4 trillion in deficit reduction over the next twelve years, under “an approach that puts every kind of spending on the table, but one that protects the middle-class, our promise to seniors, and our investments in the future.” Some of his recommendations were progressive in nature—cutting defense spending, raising taxes for the wealthiest Americans, lowering drug prices—while others were more conservative—enacting a three to one ratio of spending cuts to tax increases, continuing a freeze on discretionary spending, cutting corporate taxes, leaving the door open to major changes in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
For weeks, all anyone in Washington has wanted to talk about is the deficit, even though poll after poll shows that Americans want the president and Congress to focus their attention elsewhere. As Deepak Bharghava, director of the Center for Community Change, told the Washington Post today: “The fundamental problem in our country right now is unemployment and a jobs crisis, not a deficit crisis. It appears the president is fighting on the wrong terrain and is conceding that the only thing we should be talking about is how to bring down the deficit.”
The president didn’t completely reframe that discussion today, nor did he offer many details to illuminate his own vision. The president has been a historically weak negotiator with Congressional Republicans, so these details will matter a lot in the months and weeks ahead. But at least the president offered the country a choice between two different philosophical visions about the role that government should play in our society. The public can now decide whether they’d like to gut the social safety net or protect it. I’m guessing they’ll choose the latter.