The response to Pres. Obama’s debt speech
posted at 10:15 am on April 13, 2011 by Karl
A speech is not a budget.
Pres. Obama’s speech on our exploding national debt, though scheduled for today, was much discussed yesterday. Much of the discussion missed both the immediate point and the larger picture. Ed Morrissey and many others on the right echoed the subtext of the WaPo piece regarding Obama’s general failure to lead. Progressives like Jonathan Cohn and Paul Krugman worried that a presidential embrace of the Bowles-Simpson commission’s work would define the center of the debt debate too far to the right. A few libs, like Greg Sargent, hoped the ambiguous statements coming out of the White House meant that Obama would propose something more progressive than Bowles-Simpson, to push the debate leftward. And Andrew Sullivan thinks Obama’s speech will prove that his decision not to back Bowles-Simpson in his State of the Union or budget “was tactical, not strategic.”
But the first key to understanding the nature of Obama’s speech was right there in the lede:
President Obama plans this week to respond to a Republican blueprint for tackling the soaring national debt by promoting a bipartisan approach pioneered by an independent presidential commission rather than introducing his own detailed plan.
Accordingly, the first response to Obama’s speech should be the one offered by the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL):
The President recently submitted a budget to Congress that was the most irresponsible spending plan any President has ever put forward. Today’s announcement that the President will deliver an address this week on deficit reduction is an apparent recognition that the budget plan he submitted to Congress, as required by law, fails to address our dire fiscal challenges. However, it will not be sufficient for the President to simply make a speech. Instead, he must fulfill his duty as president and submit a new budget plan to Congress specifically setting forth the changes he wishes to make to his previous proposal, including both mandatory and discretionary savings. The President’s vision, whatever it is, must be presented in a detailed, concrete form. CBO must be able to score it and I and the Budget Committees in the House and Senate must be able to scrutinize it. I am uneasy that this announcement has been made not by a substantive policy official such as his budget director or Treasury Secretary but by the President’s top political advisor.
Pres. Obama spent a year falsely claiming that the GOP had no health care plans. The least the GOP can do is truthfully point out at every opportunity that neither Pres. Obama nor Sen. Maj. Ldr. Harry Reid (D-NV) have a plan for reducing the national debt.
The second key in responding to Obama’s speech is to understand its political purpose, which may be found in the subtext of this Bloomberg report on the address:
Obama’s approach will draw on the findings of the Simpson- Bowles debt commission chairmen, who said tax increases had to accompany spending reductions. He will specifically reject Ryan’s idea of a voucher-like system for future Medicare recipients, the person said.
The president also will try to align his plan with the objectives of the so-called Gang of Six, a group of three Republican and three Democratic senators working on their own fiscal recommendations. That plan isn’t expected to be released until after a two-week congressional recess scheduled to begin next week, according to people familiar with the negotiations.
While refusing to release details about what the president will say, White House officials have offered hints of the direction he will take.
“You can’t simply slash entitlements, lower taxes and call that a fair deal,” Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, said yesterday.
The small takeaway here is to suggest that Senate GOP Ldr. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) pressure the Republicans in the Gang of Six to slow walk their work to death. If progressives are concerned about Obama dragging the center of negotiations rightward, the GOP ought not to be volunteering to give a bipartisan veneer to tax increases.
The larger takeaway is that Obama’s speech is not a forerunner to a serious plan, but an attempt to rerun the Clinton ’95 playbook. Obama merely means to set up the attack that the GOP plans to end Medicare as we know it to fund tax cuts for “the rich.” This underscores the importance of leading any response by pointing out that Obama and Reid have no plan. That first point leads to the second, which is that if Dems were forced to show their math, it would be clear — as even CNN has noted — that taxing the wealthy is nowhere near a solution to the debt. Republicans might add that the only Democrat budget plan out there is comprised of insanely high taxes and gutting our national defense, and that the Bowles-Simpson plan would also require record high taxes (likely a value added tax) and top-down health care rationing. GOPers could do much worse than the formulation set forth by NRO’s Kevin D. Williamson:
Our choices are: 1. raise taxes severely, and pretend that that is not going to have catastrophic economic consequences; 2. court a national fiscal crisis on the Portugal model but on a significantly larger scale, and pretend that that is not going to have catastrophic economic consequences; 3. cut spending.
Most of all, the GOP (and the right generally) needs to be confident and aggressive [in] these responses. Why? Because Obama’s position here is only partially due to his penchant for voting “present” on tough issues. And contra crazy Andy Sullivan, Obama is continuing a purely tactical approach.
The bigger picture here is that Obama would not have even formed the Bowles-Simpson commission, had it not been for the right and the Tea Party raising the political temperature on the debt. Obama did so merely to try to punt the issue past the 2010 midterms. However, creating the commission validated the debt as a serious issue in the establishment’s echo chamber. And Obama’s silence on the issue created a vacuum that was filled by the GOP and the Tea Party, first in the results of the midterms and now in Rep. Paul Ryan’s long-term budget plan. Having accepted the debt is a serious problem, even the establishment media was stuck with the narrative that you cannot beat something with nothing, which is why Pres. Obama is speaking today. In turn, that’s why the GOP must insist that a speech is not a plan.
The even bigger picture is that Obama’s lack of leadership on the debt is a miniature of the left’s larger problem. The slow death of 20th century democratic socialism and welfare statism in the West (already visible in Europe and becoming visible here) necessarily puts left parties like the Democrats on the defensive. The Democrats are the reactionary party in America today, while the Republicans are the reformers (however much some of them seem reluctant about the mantle). The broad strokes of the Ryan budget can help America move beyond the failing welfare state progressives imagined a century ago. It is the Democrats who now stand athwart history, yelling “Stop!”