Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Was the President’s Speech Serious?

I've already had something to say about what counts as a “serious” liberal response to the Ryan budget. Now that he’s given his much-anticipated speech on the deficit, it’s time to ask whether Obama measured up to that standard.

Let's not get into an argument about how high a point it was, but the highpoint of Obama’s speech on the budget had to be his uncharacteristic indignation at the trade-offs contemplated by the Ryan budget. These words in particular stick in my mind:

“Worst of all, [the Ryan budget] 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 President followed that with a solemn pledge:
“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.”
How these words sit with you will probably be a function of where you stand. Jonathan Chait can’t be the only liberal who thinks that Obama “beat Ryan and the Republicans to a bloody pulp.” And Jonah Goldberg was undoubtedly speaking for most conservatives when he said that Obama’s speech was “a breathtaking tour de force of dishonesty and tendentiousness.” For my part, I thought most of Obama’s rhetoric was unusually effective, largely because I can’t recall him ever being that strident in his criticism of his opponents, or quite that forthright in his promises to the American people.

But was Obama’s response to Ryan as “serious” as the occasion demanded? Not if the operative sense of “seriousness” involves giving us an unvarnished account of the costs we'll have to endure in order to enjoy the benefits we’re being promised. Obama did his level best to leave us with the impression that we can fund entitlements in something like their present form with some modest-sounding belt-tightening on the spending side and simply by letting the Bush tax cuts expire for people in the highest brackets on the revenue side. No one who has been paying attention can seriously believe that.


Lone Wolf said...

You have to distinguish the seriousness we expect of a normal person from "politician seriousness." By the former standard, both Ryan and Obama are deeply unserious. I'm a securities lawyer and if one of my clients were as willfully misleading as they routinely are, he'd be in jail. But as politicians go, Ryan and Obama are probably about average.

Anonymous said...

As you point out, whether the speech sounded the right notes depends on your point of view in the first place. Liberals loved it and conservatives hated it. It's always the same.