Rhetorically, President Obama is at his best when he has a foil, and part of the problem of the last two years is that he hasn't had a Hillary Clinton or John McCain; that is, a particular opponent who crystallizes the difference between his approach and the opposition. In that sense, the elevation of Paul Ryan has been a godsend for the Obama team. Ryan's budget is terrible and cruel, but it heightens the stakes and gives the president a base from which he can pivot and provide his own vision. For today's speech on deficit reduction, Obama begins with an account of the situation (short story: blame Republicans) and hits his stride with a full-throated attack on Ryan's proposal:
A 70% cut to clean energy. A 25% cut in education. A 30% cut in transportation. Cuts in college Pell Grants that will grow to more than $1,000 per year. That's what they're proposing. These aren't the kind of cuts you make when you're trying to get rid of some waste or find extra savings in the budget. These aren't the kind of cuts that Republicans and Democrats on the Fiscal Commission proposed. These are the kind of cuts that tell us we can't afford the America we believe in. And they paint a vision of our future that's deeply pessimistic. [...]
This vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America. Ronald Reagan's own budget director said, there's nothing "serious" or "courageous" about this plan. There's nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And I don't think there's anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don't have any clout on Capitol Hill. That's not a vision of the America I know.
From here, Obama defines the stakes: The Republican budget is bleak and pessimistic, the Democratic counterproposal is optimistic and forward-thinking. What's more, in presenting his vision of a fiscally sustainable future, Obama provides an impressively strong defense of progressive governance:
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.
This is easily the most liberal speech Obama has given since entering office, and it's matched by a reasonably progressive proposal that preserves Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, while financing deficit reduction through higher taxes on the wealthy (i.e., a partial repeal of the Bush tax cuts), minor cuts to military spending, mandatory spending cuts, and more vigorous attempts to reduce health-care spending, and reduced tax expenditures. Indeed, rather than embrace Simpson-Bowles as is -- which was the pre-speech rumor -- it seems that Obama has attached the Simpson-Bowles "brand" to a more liberal version of the commission recommendations.
Of course, the basic premise of this speech is still a little weird. Unemployment is still high, the job market is still weak, and the economy remains sluggish. In a sane world, deficit reduction would be on the back end, as policy remains focused on restoring the economy to pre-recession levels. That said, given the hostile political environment, this was an excellent speech and a firm rebuttal to this current crop of radical Republican ideologues.