Finally: Obama Comes Out Swinging

April 14th, 2011

I have to admit that the president’s performance during the budget negotiations was disheartening. It’s not so much that I care if $38 billion is cut from the very small pie of non-defense discretionary spending, but that Obama and Senate negotiators gave so much away in the face of Republican threats to shut down the government.  The negotiations made me question what would be left of the social safety net that so many American generations fought for after the president finished compromising. 

The speech he made yesterday could be a turning point. It was a strong statement that he realizes how important this moment in our history is and is ready to fight for the principles that liberals have fought for and the programs that are under attack from the Radical Republicans. Not only was it a shrewd statement politically, it was probably the most specific and eloquent defense of liberalism that I’ve heard in some time. 

If you missed it, I highly recommend watching or reading it but here are my highlights:

Obama gave a nod to the idea of an America of “rugged individualists, a self-reliant people with a healthy skepticism of too much government.” But also spoke of “another thread running throughout our history”:

A belief that we are all connected; and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation. We believe, in the words of our first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, that through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves. And so we’ve built a strong military to keep us secure, and public schools and universities to educate our citizens. We’ve laid down railroads and highways to facilitate travel and commerce. We’ve supported the work of scientists and researchers whose discoveries have saved lives, unleashed repeated technological revolutions, and led to countless new jobs and entire industries. Each of us has benefited from these investments, and we are a more prosperous country as a result.

Part of this American belief that we are all connected also expresses itself in a conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff, may strike any one of us. “There but for the grace of God go I,” we say to ourselves, and so we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment insurance, which protects us against unexpected job loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, and those with disabilities. We are a better country because of these commitments. I’ll go further – we would not be a great country without those commitments.

Without naming the Ryan Plan specifically, he savaged it.

He savaged it in soaring rhetoric when he explained how much we could accomplish if we invested in our country:

It’s a vision that says if our roads crumble and our bridges collapse, we can’t afford to fix them. If there are bright young Americans who have the drive and the will but not the money to go to college, we can’t afford to send them. Go to China and you’ll see businesses opening research labs and solar facilities. South Korean children are outpacing our kids in math and science. Brazil is investing billions in new infrastructure and can run half their cars not on high-priced gasoline, but biofuels. And yet, we are presented with a vision that says the United States of America – the greatest nation on Earth – can’t afford any of this.

Then he savaged it with specifics:

It’s a vision that says America can’t afford to keep the promise we’ve made to care for our seniors. It says that ten years from now, if you’re a 65 year old who’s eligible for Medicare, you should have to pay nearly $6,400 more than you would today. It says instead of guaranteed health care, you will get a voucher. And if that voucher isn’t worth enough to buy insurance, tough luck – you’re on your own. Put simply, it ends Medicare as we know it.

He drew attention to the fact that the Ryan budget proposes to dismantle the health care systems for the poor, the disabled and the elderly and plows that savings into even more tax cuts for the wealthy. Along the way, he pointed to the rising inequality that accompanied the tax cutting spree of the Bush years:

Worst of all, this is a vision that says even though America can’t afford to invest in education or clean energy; even though we can’t afford to care for seniors and poor children, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy. Think about it. In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90% of all working Americans actually declined. The top 1% saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. And that’s who needs to pay less taxes?

They want to give people like me a two hundred thousand dollar tax cut that’s paid for by asking thirty three seniors to each pay six thousand dollars more in health costs?

That’s not right, and it’s not going to happen as long as I’m President.

When I watched the section above, I had to rewind the Tivo once or twice to understand the math he was explaining: giving one person a two hundred thousand dollar tax cut and financing it by asking thirty three old people to pay six thousand dollars more in health care costs. This is the Republican’s plan for the future.

Just as he did in his Libya speech, Obama consistently drew on the ideals of American Exceptionalism that Republicans have unfairly knocked him for not honoring:

The America I know is generous and compassionate; a land of opportunity and optimism. We take responsibility for ourselves and each other; for the country we want and the future we share. We are the nation that built a railroad across a continent and brought light to communities shrouded in darkness. We sent a generation to college on the GI bill and saved millions of seniors from poverty with Social Security and Medicare. We have led the world in scientific research and technological breakthroughs that have transformed millions of lives.

This is who we are. This is the America I know. We don’t have to choose between a future of spiraling debt and one where we forfeit investments in our people and our country. To meet our fiscal challenge, we will need to make reforms. We will all need to make sacrifices. But we do not have to sacrifice the America we believe in. And as long as I’m President, we won’t.

Finally the fight is joined. For years, the Republicans have engaged in a “Starve the Beast” strategy which consistently cut taxes and then blamed the shortfalls that ensued on runnaway social spending.

But the Ryan plan is a bridge too far. It shows the real vision that the Republicans have for the country, and the argument that we need to dismantle Medicaid and Medicare and provide even more tax cuts for the rich just isn’t going to fly.

Yesterday, the President provided an alternative to that vision and indicated that he is willing to fight for it. How much he is willing to fight remains to be seen, but I’m feeling better than I did a few days ago.

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