It wasn’t a budget, or a bill, or even an outline. Officially dubbed “The Country That We Believe In,” the President’s address at George Washington University had long been billed as his “deficit reduction” speech. He was expected to use the occasion to respond to the House Republican budget proposal offered earlier this month by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R.-Wis.) and propose his alternative agenda for dealing with a deficit estimated at $1.6 trillion.
As it turned out, Obama did respond to Ryan and his budget and did so in no uncertain terms. This was no surprise to the White House Press Corps, which had been warmed up for the address yesterday by Press Secretary Jay Carney and earlier today by a “senior administration offical” (who briefed reporters on the content of the address via conference call).
So, in a nutshell, the President praised Ryan for spelling out “worthy goals for us to achieve”—deficit reduction and dealing with the challenge of Medicare and Medicaid. And to no one’s surprise, Obama rejected Ryan’s solutions, “borrowed” from the Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission he appointed last year (and whose suggestions he has been conspicuous in not trumpeting much), and called for repeal of the tax cuts on the highest income earners (that he himself reluctantly agreed to continue on Dec. 7).
In short, there was nothing fresh or bold in Obama’s address. If there was anything dramatic, it was in the rhetoric he used to denounce the Ryan budget approach to deficit reduction and dealing with entitlements. At the very least, it was a sneak preview of the campaign rhetoric Obama is sure to evince as he seeks reelection next year. At worst, it was old-fashioned and outright class warfare.
“It’s a vision that says if our roads crumble and our bridges collapse, we can’t afford to fix them,” Obama declared. “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.”
The President poured it on further, declaring that Ryan’s budget is a vision that “says America can’t afford to keep the promise we’ve made to care for our seniors” and “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.”
This was a speech, of course, and not a debate. So neither Ryan nor any of the student audience could cross-examine Obama and note that the Republican budget gives people greater choices about the education of their children and Medicare because they will have more money to make those choices.
And as for a “voucher” instead of “guaranteed health care,” one could say, maybe that would give the holder better health care because he or she would have the choice of provider.
Obama went on to cite what he has already called for to strengthen Medicare and Medicaid (which remain unscathed as entitlements under his earlier proposals). And if Medicare costs rise faster than we expect, Obama added, “This approach will give the independent commission the authority to make additional savings by further improving Medicare.”
Another independent commission, one is tempted to say aloud. Like Bowles-Simpson, whose proposals Obama just now seems to be sorting out.
Oh yes, he did get around to saying, “We cannot afford $1 trillion worth of tax cuts for every millionaire and billionaire in our society. And I refuse to renew them again.” Rather, he would seek reform of the tax code “so that the amount of taxes you pay isn’t determined by what kind of accountant you can afford.”
If this sounds familiar, it is out of the Democratic Party campaign playbook, and that’s one volume that is getting old. Democratic campaigners have used this kind of rhetoric against Republicans going back to the Great Depression, and sometimes, it has worked.
As to whether it will work again, the most we can say now is we will have to wait until 2012.