04.13.11 5:55 PM ET
Obama's Budget Speech: Daily Beast Contributors Weigh In
The most innovative part of Obama’s speech was how he used China. Americans know that China is doing well, in some ways better than us. They’re afraid, and a little envious and Obama played into that: “Go to China and you’ll see businesses opening research labs and solar facilities.” He went on to talk about the new investments being made by governments like South Korea and Brazil. The message was clear: These countries that are sneaking up on us aren’t doing it by slashing spending. They’re doing it by using government money to build a world-class infrastructure, and we must, too.
In his eat-your-peas speech Wednesday, President Obama excelled at eviscerating the GOP budget plan as slashing away at worthy programs and leading to "a fundamentally different America"—one that would screw everyone from college students to Medicare patients who would get cheapo vouchers.
He also slammed Paul Ryan's proposed tax breaks for the wealthy that would reduce his own bill by $200,000 on the backs of seniors—neither he nor Warren Buffett needs the money.
I'm not sure how major an impact this midday speech will have—simply because it will be highly limited in its audience. But it was classic Obama—a center left approach to a center-right conviction: that the debt is unsustainable; that we all have to make sacrifices; that defense-cutting, reducing the cost of healthcare; and tax reform are integral to this possibility.
And it looks as if he will indeed use the debt ceiling moment to push some version of this through. I didn't get the sense from this speech that he was only planning to do this in his second term. And surely, after the cold shock of the Ryan plan, his less draconian vision for the vulnerable will be popular in the middle. The least persuasive part of the GOP proposal is its refusal to ask anything from the top one percent in this crisis. Obama saw this, and went for it.
Obama is a man who rations his emotions, but watching his speech today, and listening to the direction of his reforms, his inner liberal is alive and well. He would direct less money to the top 1 percent and hold the line for people who have no clout on Capitol Hill. He can't deliver everything liberals want, but this fight is as much about leadership as it is about the numbers. After a slow start, Obama is suited up and ready for the battle. "In a country that prizes both our individual freedoms and obligations to each other, this is one of the most important debates we have," he said, recalling the historic tension over the role of government that goes back to the Founding Fathers.
A defiant President Obama presented his vision for deficit reduction by rooting it in the social contract, rejecting Republican budget plans and calling for a "more balanced approach."
Strains of the 2012 campaign could be heard throughout his remarks. The biggest tell: President Obama has rediscovered the middle class. He used that phrase 12 times in this speech – after unwisely ignoring it entirely in his State of the Union address just four months ago.
Politicians need to win elections, and elections are won by pandering to those groups with the most electoral heft, so it is not surprising that Obama failed to admit that any realistic plan that continues to deliver the many and varied goods required by his "generous and compassionate" vision of America would also require meaty middle-class tax hikes. But this means that the president was far less honest than he claimed to be. While he deserves credit for forthrightly explaining that America's fiscal woes follow almost entirely from military spending and the unsustainability of the major entitlement programs—Social Security and Medicare—he failed altogether to lay out a scheme of truly shared sacrifice.
Wasn't it just a few years ago that a sitting Republican vice-president declared, “Deficits don't matter”? How quickly times have changed.
This is surely a good thing. So too is the president's willingness to finger the essence of the problem: a widespread desire for an endless free lunch—people coveting government benefits without a willingness to pay for them.
We learned several things from President Obama's speech today, which promised to revise the budget he presented to America as a serious effort only 60 days ago. First, he is running for re-election on "hope and change." He will not run as the president dealing with the overspending problem he exacerbated, but as a commentator on the passing scene. "Oh, there's a train wreck. Not good. Someone should do something soon." He rushed out to respond inside the news cycle to the Paul Ryan 2012 budget plan, which will reduce Obama's federal government spending by $6 trillion over the next 10 years.