Finally–Presidential Moral Clarity

President Obama gave a terrific speech on "the kind of future we want" and "the kind of country we believe in" to take control of the budget and deficit-cutting agenda in Washington and beyond.

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President Obama gave a terrific speech on “the kind of future we want” and “the kind of country we believe in” to take control of the budget and deficit-cutting agenda in Washington and beyond. The speech had a moral clarity and assertiveness that we have not heard from Obama for some time. I like the timing, I like the rationale for government and how to pay for it, and I like—perhaps most of all—the way Obama skewered the GOP-Ryan charade and set the stage for winning the political battles to come.

Timing: Smart to Wait

Frustration has mounted as Obama has laid back, trying to play above-it-all-referee during round one of the three rounds of budget battles unfolding between a radicalized GOP House and the Senate and White House. Many of us have doubts about Obama’s willingness to stand up and articulate a clear, values-based message, because he failed to do that in the economic crisis. He left Americans without any clear explanation for what happened in that crisis, and without a sense of the values and policies he was advocating to ensure a robust recovery with jobs. It was a huge early failure in his presidency, and helped to set up the “shellacking” Democrats suffered in 2010.

But this time, in the budget wars, waiting until just after the unseemly charade of GOP-forced brinkmanship over the 2011 budget was wise. Obama and Senate Leader Harry Reid did better in the details than many thought. But more to the point, Speaker John Boehner had to do a lot of things to appease the extremists in his party that turned off middle-of-the road voters. Most Americans do not look forward to more rounds of the same, and Obama stepping up to offer a broad explanation and vision at this point is a good thing. People are likely to pay attention, and the President gains leverage for the next rounds, especially since Americans are going to hate brinkmanship over the good faith and credit of the U.S. government. It does not matter that polls say people do not want the debt limit increased. They don’t understand what that is, and they will hate the threat of another financial meltdown. Obama sets the focus on the longer-term challenges—and at the same time draws contrasts with his political enemies.

Rationale for Government: National Goals and Shared Values

Obama’s call to make “government smarter, leaner, and more effective” to do important, specific things that Americans of all persuasions resoundingly support is so much better than Bill Clinton’s “the era of big government is over” last time around. Good thing, too, because the times are now more dire. Compromise, yes; pussyfooting triangulation, no—that will not work this time. Obama did a good job of explaining where the huge deficits came from—and pinning the blame where it belongs, mostly on the Bush GOP. He did it with a soft touch, but he did it. Ironic, in this respect, that he was lionizing Clinton.

At last, the White House team seems to have figured out the truth about Americans: They may reject government in the abstract, but they strongly support—and are willing to pay in shared ways—for government activities to address important national goals and realize shared values. Obama laid that out beautifully, with concrete examples. The fact is that even ordinary Tea Partiers (not the Dick Armeys who are using the grassroots) favor Social Security and Medicare and defense. As Obama reminds us, these are most of what government does. And the vast majority of Americans are willing to ask the rich to pay more for Social Security and other valued things.

Obama’s overall message: We can fix the deficits, keep and strengthen the government efforts that matter, and move forward with contributions from everyone, including the very rich. His vision is just where most Americans are. His job as President is to capture our hopes—and project them forward into an appealing and doable future. He did that in this speech.

Critique of Conservatives: Drawing the Moral Bottom Line

Bloggers are beginning to worry over the policy details, such as what percentage of deficit reduction Obama said has to come from spending cuts versus tax increases. I would not bother with that worry, for two reasons:

  • Obama is great at creative math. He is assuming an end to Bush tax cuts for the rich already, and counting future removal of some tax breaks as “spending cuts.” Even in the details, this is better than it looks to progressives at first glance.
  • The details do not matter anyway, because this is a framework that sets the stage for coalition-building and arguments in coming rounds of hard-fought battles. Obama has created a vision that liberals and independents can join to support, and a vision that all stripes of Democrats can run on into 2012. Make no mistake, we are all headed into 2012. America’s direction will not be settled by June 2011.

Paul Ryan wrote an outrageous, fake-numbers plan—a plan to smash Medicare and Medicaid and use literally all of the “savings” to pay for more tax cuts for billionaires. Obama, for once, did not mince words. He called out the Ryan plan for the outrage that it is. He used declarative sentences to say that he would not accept the core parts “as long as I’m President.” Obama will not voucherize Medicare, destroy Medicaid, or allow the Bush tax giveaways to the super-wealthy to continue beyond next year. These are strong stands. Progressives must hold him to those stands.

And some of the rhetoric was magnificent: “They want to give people like me a $200,000 tax cut that’s paid for by asking 33 seniors to each pay $6,000 more in health costs? That’s not right…” This does what Democrats must always do from now on about taxes and social programs: make the trade-offs clear in money and human terms. And draw the moral bottom line. If Obama and the Democrats do that every day, every month, over and over without flinching, they will smash the GOP on the tax-cut nonsense.

Most Americans are already expressing opposition to Ryanism, and Obama has put the GOP Congress and their presidential candidates right on the spot about Ryan’s heartless and fiscally irresponsible plan. Obama drew the contrasts in both human and patriotic terms. And Obama is saying what most Americans believe, hope, and expect.

Where will it all end? Who knows? It is going to take a while, many rounds of battle through 2012 and beyond. But Obama at least grabbed control of the agenda. And no one should underestimate him when he finally gets going.

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