President Obama not only laid out his plan for reducing the deficit today, but he turned a fiscal discussion into a question of patriotism. Obama said of the Republican budget plan, “The fact is their vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America.”
One vision has been championed by Republicans in the House of Representatives and embraced by several of their party’s presidential candidates. It’s a plan that aims to reduce our deficit by $4 trillion over the next ten years, and one that addresses the challenge of Medicare and Medicaid in the years after that.
Those are both worthy goals for us to achieve. But the way this plan achieves those goals would lead to a fundamentally different America than the one we’ve known throughout most of our history.
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.
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.
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.
This is a vision that says up to 50 million Americans have to lose their health insurance in order for us to reduce the deficit. And who are those 50 million Americans? Many are someone’s grandparents who wouldn’t be able afford nursing home care without Medicaid. Many are poor children. Some are middle-class families who have children with autism or Down’s syndrome. Some are kids with disabilities so severe that they require 24-hour care. These are the Americans we’d be telling to fend for themselves.
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.
The fact is, their vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America. As 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. There’s nothing courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill. And this is not a vision of the America I know.
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.
Obama later promised to protect Social Security and Medicare:
But let me be absolutely clear: I will preserve these health care programs as a promise we make to each other in this society. I will not allow Medicare to become a voucher program that leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry, with a shrinking benefit to pay for rising costs. I will not tell families with children who have disabilities that they have to fend for themselves. We will reform these programs, but we will not abandon the fundamental commitment this country has kept for generations.
That includes, by the way, our commitment to Social Security. 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.
Obama did call for $500 billion in cuts in Medicare and Medicaid by 2023, but he called for $320 billion in increased taxes to the top 2%. The purpose of Obama’s speech was to offer an alternative vision for deficit reduction. Obama offered an optimistic vision where America still invests in technology, infrastructure, and education and keeps the social safety net.
The President used the topic of deficit reduction to paint the Republicans as pessimists who have no faith in America. This represents a return to the theme of hope and optimism that powered Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. It is also something deeper.
Obama was appealing to the emotions associated with patriotism. The President was once again appealing to the collective American better angels.
Obama was not talking about policy, but doing what is right. Obama did what many in politics feel is impossible. He went beyond the billions and trillions, and sold his deficit reduction plan as something simple, doing what is right. By framing his plan as the right thing to, any critic that blasts Obama’s plan will be on the “wrong” side for America.
Surprisingly this was a speech that avoided the dullness of statistics, and instead focused on asking our people what kind of country do we want America to be?
Make no mistake about it. Obama was definitely attacking the Republican vision of American, and he was attacking their patriotism. Obama placed the discussion into a very familiar dynamic, right vs. wrong, optimism vs. pessimism, and selfishness vs patriotism.
Obama was setting up his 2012 campaign as a choice between two America’s, one of hope and optimism, or another of pessimism and inequality.
The President was defining patriotism as something that was missing from the GOP budget plan. Since Republicans have so gleefully taken up the cause for “them,” Obama was more than happy to speak for “us,” and lay out his vision of a hopeful patriotic America.