Obama’s Budget Speech: His Inner Liberal is Alive and Well

In his carefully worded deficit speech, the president assured Democrats that his inner liberal is alive and well—slamming Paul Ryan’s budget proposal as “deeply pessimistic,” and vowing that the radical plan is “not going to happen as long as I’m president.” Eleanor Clift on why Obama’s up to the task at hand.

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.

As the debate gets under way, Obama reminded us again of his rhetorical gifts as he ended his speech with what is essentially a reprise of his campaign theme that America can come together, and which remains the blueprint for his re-election. Speaking soberly and with conviction, he sounded like he has had a Come-to-Jesus moment in assessing the budget. Pointing out that interest alone could rise to $1 trillion by the end of this decade, he said, "Even our national security will be paid for by borrowed money." He invoked that well-worn Washington phrase, that everything must be put on the table, including Medicare, Medicaid, and defense spending, which together account for two-thirds of spending.

After commending Republican Paul Ryan for coming forward with a plan, he deftly skewered it as "deeply pessimistic" that if enacted would lead to "a fundamentally different America," one that will leave some 50 million Americans to fend for themselves: while handing a trillion dollars in new tax breaks to the wealthy. "That's not right, and that's not going to happen as long as I'm president," he declared. His plan would cut $4 trillion from the deficit over 12 years, end tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and preserve the federal guarantee for Medicare and Medicaid, while expanding cost restraints already in place in the health care reform legislation—"a scalpel not a machete," as Obama put it.

Speaking soberly and with conviction, Obama sounded like he has had a Come-to-Jesus moment in assessing the budget.

The central issue of our day should be jobs, but Republican messaging and the arrival of the Tea Party has made it the country's rising debt. Obama enters the debate at an optimal moment when Republicans have put down markers that many Americans find objectionable—from trying to defund Planned Parenthood to privatizing Medicare. A lot of Democrats would like Obama to just say no, but that's not Obama's inclination. There is a serious challenge in getting the budget under control. It's not a crisis, but it is a partisan confrontation about the role of government, and Obama showed in his speech today that he is ready to seize the moment on behalf of his party's ideals and constituents.

Eleanor Clift is a contributing editor for Newsweek. Follow her on Twitter.