Good Poetry, Blah Prose

"You campaign in poetry and govern in prose" is a pretty fair adage for delineating the poles of political life, and it most surely delineates the poles of Barack Obama's presidency. Few presidents have been able to evoke visions of a decent society as well as he, and particularly as well as he did in his speech yesterday afternoon at George Washington University. The America that Obama argued for is a socially cohesive America, a land where we rise and fall together as beneficiaries not only of our own labors but of the labors of others and the collective labors of the nation, fostered, funded and in some cases performed by its government.

"There are some things we can only do together as a nation," Obama said. "We are a better country because of these commitments" -- to seniors, children, the sick and the poor, through Medicare and Social Security and Medicaid. "I'll go further," he added, "we would not be a great country without these commitments."

Obama's vision was compelling not only in itself but in contrast to Paul Ryan's punching bag of a budget proposal, which, by slashing taxes on the rich and transferring the burden of rising medical costs to seniors and the poor, could not have been better calibrated to discredit the plutocratic libertarianism that dominates current Republican thinking. "This is a vision," Obama said of Ryan's folly, "that says even though Americans can't afford to invest in education or clean energy, even though we can't afford to care for seniors or poor children, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy. ... They want to give people like me a $200,000 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."

Thus Obama, campaigning in poetry. That part of his speech was grand. So, too, were his vows to achieve savings in medical costs not by transferring them to individuals but by using government's purchasing power to bargain down the price of drugs and foster more-effective treatments. So too was his pledge to raise roughly $1 trillion in increased taxes on the rich.

But when it comes to the prose -- the hard numbers of Obama's proposal and the hard bargaining (or hard posturing) that lies ahead -- things look distinctly less grand. Begin with his vow to cut roughly $2 in spending for every $1 he raises in revenues. That's not only not equitable (last fall, the bipartisan deficit-reduction panel chaired by former Republican Sen. Pete Dominici and former Clinton budget director Alice Rivlin called for a 50-50 split) but will, if enacted, lead to cuts in the very programs Obama's poetry extols. According to Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Obama's proposal to cut $360 billion from mandatory programs other than Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid would likely imperil a range of programs that the very people Obama pledged to defend in fact depend upon.

And for all Obama's poetry on making the rich share some of the burden of reducing the deficit with everybody else, he still let them off easy. Nothing in his budget proposal calls for restoring taxes on capital gains and dividends to their earlier levels, when they were at parity with taxes on wage income. Yet for the past several decades, it's been capital gain and dividend income that's been soaring while wage income has been flat. Moreover, as investment income has increasingly gone to financial speculation and multinationals' ventures abroad, investment in productive domestic enterprise has declined. Privileging investment income over wage income is an absurdity that the president should seek to end.

Indeed, Obama's speech seems like a good place for the president to end up when the bargaining is done -- not the place to start the process. If Obama had started by proposing to close the deficit by taxing and cutting in equal measure, if he'd begun by proposing clearly fairer, rather than somewhat fairer, taxes, I'd feel better about his prose.

That said, part of the reason his poetry worked is that it doesn't stand in isolation. Obama's defense of government, of social connection and responsibility, is the latest in a succession of speeches that have defined American liberalism and the Democratic Party going back, arguably, to William Jennings Bryan, and unarguably to Franklin Roosevelt. I was reminded particularly of Mario Cuomo's keynote address to the 1984 Democratic Convention. Where Obama's foil was Paul Ryan, Cuomo's foil was Ronald Reagan, in particular, Reagan's evocation of America as a city on a hill, shining for all the world to see and admire. Beneath that hill, said Cuomo, "there are elderly people who tremble in the basements of the houses there. And there are people who sleep in the city streets, in the gutter, where the glitter doesn't show."

"Mr. President, you ought to know that this nation is more a 'Tale of Two Cities' and it is just a 'Shining City on a Hill,'" Cuomo continued. "Maybe, Mr. President, if you asked a woman who had been denied the help she needed to feed her children because you said you needed the money for a tax break for a millionaire," Cuomo said, not even completing the sentence as he was drowned out by cheers.

The difference between Obama's attack on Ryan and Cuomo's on Reagan is instructive, and not just because Cuomo's imagery is consistently more vivid. Cuomo actually does something that hardly anyone in American politics does today: He evokes images of poor people; he puts them at the center of his narrative. Obama talks of the Republicans defunding science and railroads and college loans; Cuomo talks of Republicans further impoverishing the poor.

Does that put Obama 2011 to the right of Cuomo 1984? At first glance, surely -- Cuomo defends the disadvantaged with a forthrightness that is hard to find among today's Democrats. At second glance, it's not so clear: The broad American middle class to which Cuomo devoted less attention than the poor has seen no real advances in its financial condition since 1984. Obama isn't wrong to speak for a broader population than Cuomo did; that broader population is hurting more now than then, and the Republicans' schemes imperil it more now than they did then as well.

In reviewing Cuomo's speech, though, I have to confess I'd forgotten the attack he leveled on Reagan for increasing the deficit (a double shame on me, since I was in the hall when Cuomo spoke). Reagan's deficit, said Cuomo, was "the largest in the history of the universe. ... It is a mortgage on our children's future that can be paid only in pain and that could bring this nation to its knees."

Like George H.W. Bush, Reagan had put through tax cuts, disproportionately on the rich, that had caused the deficit to soar. But since Republican deficits, no matter their size, never become the flash points that Democratic deficits do, it's invariably the Democrats who are compelled to mop up. Cuomo's mop was an increase in taxes and a reduction in Pentagon spending. Obama, in a political climate that is well to the right of where it was when Reagan was president, is proposing a more conservative fix than that. As such, Obama must square a circle: defending (in poetry) and diminishing (in prose) the welfare state. How Obama fares at this, and how the welfare state emerges, is still anybody's guess.

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