Poetry graces the speeches of Barack Obama. Few political leaders have his skill of telling the progressive story of America in a way that draws us together. His budget speech delivered at George Washington was exemplary, portraying an America of both rugged individualism and common purpose.
The president combined his defense of progressive governance with a pointed and clear critique of the preposterous Republican budget plan and its indefensible priorities.
He stood as Horatio at the bridge in defense of Medicare and Medicaid against the Republican plan, which would end them as we know it. All the blood-curdling charts about mountainous deficits and debt, about trillions in "unfunded mandates," are based almost entirely on soaring costs of a broken health-care system that now costs two times per capita more than the average cost of systems in other industrial nations, with worse results. The president rightly indicted Republicans for failing to do anything about cost reduction (in fact making it worse by repealing the cost reforms passed as part of health-care reform), and instead simply turning Medicare into a voucher with limited value while cutting nearly a trillion out of Medicaid, forcing the most vulnerable -- seniors, the disabled, poor children, the deathly ill in nursing homes -- to pay more for health care or go without.
Obama instead called for pushing for more reform, more of the hard work to police and curb rising health care costs. And he started by calling for allowing Medicare to use its purchasing power to gain bulk discounts for prescription drugs, a common sense measure now prohibited by current law.
In contrast to the Republican plan, the president insisted that deficit reduction come not simply from cuts in domestic programs, but from the defense budget also. He called for ending the top-end Bush tax cuts for the "millionaires and billionaires," and opposed the Republican call for even more tax breaks for the wealthy. And he sensibly defended Social Security, noting that it does not contribute to the deficit and shouldn't be part of the solution.
And the president forcefully flayed the utter folly of the Republican plan:
"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."
Given the rumors and suggestions floated by administration spokesmen before the speech, many progressives were pleased by the speech. Those of us who mobilized to demand defense of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security were particularly relieved.
The Conservative Context
But it is worth understanding just how conservative this debate has become -- and how far the president has retreated. The most progressive president since Johnson has now embraced a center-right agenda -- even before entering negotiations with the Republicans.
Keynes and Jobs: RIP
The president effectively announced the demise of a reborn Keynesian era that has expired before the economy revived. There are 25-million Americans in need of full-time work. Home values are still sinking; gas prices are at $4 a gallon and rising. Consumer confidence is plummeting. Europe's growth is slowing. But the federal government will join the states and cities in immediately cutting spending and laying off workers.
With this premature embrace of austerity, mass unemployment may become the new normal. Wages will remain stagnant. The concentration of wealth will grow and the middle class will continue to decline.
The president allowed that he was "sympathetic" to the view that we shouldn't cut spending until the economy is fully recovered. But he embraced the conservative argument that "doing nothing on the deficit is just not an option," because we could do "real damage to the economy" if we don't "begin a process now."
But mass unemployment and stagnant wages represent "real damage to the economy" that is here and now, not speculative. There's no sign of the potential harm that might be caused by deficits in the sometime future. Interest rates are low; America has no trouble financing its debt. The president started down this path prematurely in 2009; now he has forced the pace.
Timidity on Common Sense Priorities