Let’s admit that we didn’t expect Barack Obama’s speech to produce a plan that would please conservatives, inasmuch as we have seen this President’s predilection for higher spending and more regulation for the last two-plus years. Some of us may not have expected there to be no plan, or that Obama would take the opportunity for mindless demagoguery, but I doubt that surprised anyone on the Right all that much, either. The word “disappointed” wouldn’t apply to conservatives, although “disgusted” certainly might.
Hopes were higher in the center and on the Left. Two responses in national media outlets suggest that “disappointed” might be too mild a word to describe the reaction to Obama’s speech yesterday. Clive Crook, a critic of Paul Ryan’s plan, nevertheless pronounced Obama’s effort “pitiful” and “a waste of breath” at the Atlantic:
My instant unguarded reaction, in fact, was to find it not just weak but pitiful. I honestly wondered why he bothered.
There was no sign of anything worth calling a plan to curb borrowing faster than in the budget. He offered no more than a list of headings under which $4 trillion of deficit reduction (including the $2 trillion already in his budget) might be found–domestic non-security spending, defense, health costs, and tax reform. Fine, sure. But what he said was devoid of detail. He spent more of his time stressing what he would not agree to than describing clear proposals of his own.
His rebuttal of the Ryan plan was all very well–I agree it’s no good–but the administration still lacks a rival plan. That, surely, is what this speech had to provide, or at least point to, if it was going to be worth giving in the first place. His criticisms of Ryan and the Republicans need no restating. And did the country need another defense of public investment in clean energy and the American social contract? It wanted to be told how fiscal policy is going to be mended: if not by the Ryan plan, with its many grave defects, then how?
Some on the Left cheered Obama’s defense of the welfare state as a robust apologia for the Left. That, however, isn’t the issue on the minds of the electorate. They wanted to know how the Left plans to pay for the welfare state they’re trying to defend, and the White House claimed that the speech would address deficit reduction in a meaningful manner. Instead, as Crook seems to recognize, that promise turned into a bait-and-switch for very tired class-warfare rhetoric that failed to even address the question at hand, let alone answer it.
At CNN, Laurence Kotlikoff, an economist who backed Obama in 2008, expresses similar amazement at the “kick the can” speech Obama gave:
In his speech on our nation’s long-term budget crisis Wednesday, President Barack Obama identified the problem, but he failed to provide concrete solutions.
Indeed, when it came to describing how he would fix federal health care spending, Obama stayed pretty close to his budget document in which he said that Medicare and Medicaid costs would come down because they’d come down and, if they didn’t, a panel of experts would tell Congress to lower them.
Give us a break. This is simply a continuation of kick-the-can down the road, which leaves ever larger government bills for our kids to pay.
While Kotlikoff doesn’t like Ryan’s plan, he notes that at least it’s specific — and that it’s actually progressive:
Ryan was brave enough to say exactly what he thinks needs to be done with these programs.
If you read his Medicare plan carefully, you’ll see that it’s highly progressive because the size of each Medicare participant’s voucher is based on his/her pre-existing health conditions, and poor participants have worse health status, on average, than rich participants.
Ryan’s plan also puts the government on a fixed health care spending budget when it comes to these two programs, each of which is fully capable, on its own, of bankrupting the country.
Kotlikoff explains his own proposal for a “Purple Plan” health-care system, which looks a lot like Ryan’s plan, relying on vouchers and private insurance. But before he does, the one-time Obama supporter says that Obama’s oratory still makes his “jaw drop,” but that “eloquence is no substitute for substance.” Kicking the can down the road and demonizing opponents may work fine for a campaign, but it’s not leadership.
This speech looks more and more like a gigantic miscalculation. Instead of putting Obama on par or ahead of Ryan, it demonstrated that the emperor has no substantive clothes. It’s an administration that has run out of ideas, and so instead has to rely on name-calling and petulance while hiding behind generalities so ambiguous that they’re no longer fooling the President’s supporters.