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.
While the president declared that his plan would cut the deficit by $4 trillion in 12 years, the plan was short on specific proposals, especially on the two-thirds of the budget he correctly pointed out is absorbed by Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Defense spending.
On Social Security, President Obama spoke forcefully about what he would not do, but did not discuss what specific reforms he would support, even modest proposals like raising the retirement age to 69 by 2075, supported by liberal Senator Dick Durbin.
On Medicare and Medicaid, the president argued that Paul Ryan's plan would fundamentally alter America as we know it. But after rightly criticizing the folks who pretend we can cut the deficit by focusing on "waste, fraud and abuse," he promised additional health-care savings—mostly from what amounted to waste, fraud, and abuse.
And on Defense spending, he promised an additional $400 billion in cuts, but punted specifics to a military commission.
Instead of embracing tax reform wholesale as a mechanism for closing loopholes and increasing revenue, he went straight back to raising taxes on the top bracket, flatly saying that he will not sign an extension of the Bush tax cuts for the top 2 percent again.
And while it is both right and politically courageous for a president to point out the increasing wealth disparity in America, Obama's announcement that he would focus on closing itemized deductions for the top rate only opened him up to accusations of class warfare on the campaign trail. It is apparently a fight he thinks he can win going into 2012.
The frame of the speech was a passionate defense of Obama's vision of America, a vision that balances the tradition of "rugged individualism" with the more community-based values that were just as essential to settling the West.
He frankly pointed out the soft hypocrisy of everyday Americans who "dislike government spending in the abstract but like the stuff that it buys." And he was unapologetic in setting up his biggest applause line of the speech: "They want to give people like me a two hundred thousand dollar tax cut that's paid for by asking 33 seniors to each pay $6,000 more in health costs? That's not right, and it's not going to happen as long as I'm president."
President Obama presented this proposal as his opening bid in the long negotiation to come. The speech was a success in setting out his values and rooting them in a Democratic vision of the American tradition, but it fell far short in offering specifics. He seems content to frame the debate rather than lead the conversation with concrete proposals.
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.