Stuck in the Center-Right With Obama: The President Who Still Won't Take a Stand

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The Nation

Stuck in the Center-Right With Obama: The President Who Still Won't Take a Stand

by
John Nichols

Barack Obama set out his budget deficit proposals in a speech at George Washington University in DC. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The fight over whether the United States maintains a social-safety net for seniors and our most vulnerable citizens is, by any reasonable measure, a "which side are you on struggle?" The Republicans know that; they are ready to shred the safety net in order to advance a privatization agenda that enrichs their wealthiest donors. But President Obama is still having trouble taking a stand.

Consider this line from the president's much-anticipated address regarding budget balancing, debts and deficits:

"While Social Security is not the cause of our deficit, it faces real long-term challenges in a country that is growing older.  As I said in the State of the Union, both parties should work together now to strengthen Social Security for future generations.  But we must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market."

On the plus side, Obama is rejecting Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan's proposal -- a growing favorite with Republicans -- to begin the process of privatizing the Social Security, as well as Medicare and Medicaid.

On the negative side, Obama is entertaining the notion that, while "Social Security is not the cause of our deficit," it may be necessary to make dramatic changes to the program. At a time when House Republicans are talking up the notion of raising the retirement age to 70 and otherwise reducing benefits and imposing budgets on the elderly, the president is expressing a willingness to negotiate away a lot of what is social and secure about Social Security. That's unsettlingto reduce budget deficits by $4 trillion over the next 12 years in a speech designed to give the White House political momentum in the fight with Republicans over spending.

The key part of the president’s plan is a “debt fail-safe” trigger that would initiate “across-the-board spending reductions” if by 2014 the projected ratio of debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP) “is not stabilized and declining toward the end of the decade,” according to a fact sheet released by the White House in advance of the president’s speech.

So it was with most of the president's speech, which erred again and again toward a middle ground that can only be occupied if Democrats surrender key points to Republicans.

The folks at the Progressive Change Campaign Committee summed things up reasonably well with a statement that:

"Americans will be very glad to hear that the President supports raising taxes on the rich. But he needs to take Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare benefit cuts completely off the table. The overwhelming majority of Americans oppose cuts to these programs, but support taxing the rich, ending corporate welfare, and reducing military spending. That, plus investment in jobs, should be the Democratic plan."

Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org, took a similar line.

“MoveOn members will be relieved to hear President Obama take the Republicans' plan to abolish Medicare off the table, and encouraged by his promises to put the American Dream within reach for all Americans, but unfortunately, his plan isn't nearly bold enough to make them a reality," explaind Ruben. “With the richest 1 percent of Americans taking home a quarter of all income and facing the lowest tax rates in generations, we need to go much further to make sure millionaires and corporations pay their fair share, and Wall Street banks help clean up the mess they created.  The Congressional Progressive Caucus' plan does more to reduce the deficit, while protecting the middle class and the most vulnerable, by not letting Wall Street and the super-rich off the hook.”

Obama's speech had its moments. But it did not have a point.

Rather, the president sampled from the left and right in a "something for everyone" speech that never quite took a clear stand.

Here's Obama as Reagan:

"From our first days as a nation, we have put our faith in free markets and free enterprise as the engine of America’s wealth and prosperity.  More than citizens of any other country, we are rugged individualists, a self-reliant people with a healthy skepticism of too much government."

Here's Obama as FDR:

"(There) has always been 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 benefitted 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."

And here is the bottom line: Obama speech embraces the basic premise of the Republicans that the United States is in a fiscal crisis that can only be addresses with austerity and threats. So it is that he proposes to reduce budget deficits by $4 trillion over the next 12 years not by dramatically scaling back the military-industrial complex about which Dwight Eisenhower warned (and against which Senator Rand Paul, R-Kentucky rails) or by returning to the Eisenhower-era tax rates that fueled America's boom times but by imposing  a “debt fail-safe” trigger that would initiate “across-the-board spending reductions” if by 2014 the projected ratio of debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP) “is not stabilized and declining toward the end of the decade."

To his credit, Obama rejects much of what is truly awful about Paul Ryan's proposal.

"Worst of all," he says of the House Budget Committee chair's approach, "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 percent of all working Americans actually declined.  The top 1 percent 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."

Yet, even as he says this, Obama proposes to put just about everything on the table by asking Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, to pick four members from their caucuses to participate in negotiations on a final budget deal led by Vice President Biden. These negotiations are set to begin in early May and finish by the end of June.

That is a frightening prospect, indeed. The last time president put Biden in charge of negotiating with Congress, the result was a plan to extend the Bush-era tax cits for the wealthy that Obama had campaigned to eliminate. So we find ourselves ending a day of drama regarding the president's speech at precisely the point of beginning. Obama has not broken faith entirely with his party's New Deal commitments, which is good. But he has not provided a clear vision of how he will maintain them, or a  clear sense that balancing the budget on the backs of working Americans and the poor is unacceptable.

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