President Obama’s speech attacking Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal two weeks ago was the most partisan he’s sounded since the 2008 campaign. And he’s keeping it up: Yesterday’s Facebook Townhall suggests the message of that speech — that deficit reduction cannot be achieved through slashing taxes for the rich and medical aid for the poor and elderly — is going to be a key part of the Democrats’ campaign narrative for 2012.
But the question is this: Is it too late for Obama to convincingly tell this story?
Obama cited Ryan by name, dismissing the idea that his budget proposal was brave:
No, it’s a great question. Look, here is what I’d say. The Republican budget that was put forward I would say is fairly radical. I wouldn’t call it particularly courageous. I do think Mr. Ryan is sincere. I think he’s a patriot. I think he wants to solve a real problem, which is our long-term deficit. But I think that what he and the other Republicans in the House of Representatives also want to do is change our social compact in a pretty fundamental way…So, yes, I think it’s fair to say that their vision is radical. No, I don’t think it’s particularly courageous. Because the last point I’ll make is this. Nothing is easier than solving a problem on the backs of people who are poor or people who are powerless or don’t have lobbyists or don’t have clout. I don’t think that’s particularly courageous.
That last point is particularly important. Because polls show overwhelming oppositionto abolishing Medicare and Medicaid even among Republicans, Ryan’s defenders have argued that Ryan’s plan is in fact, brave. That might be true if Ryan hadn’t sold his plan with magic numbers and pitched it as an option for “saving” Medicare when the plan essentially ends the program as we know it. Since Ryan’s plan adds $6 trillion to the debt even as Republicans are holding out against raising the debt ceiling, the word we might be looking for here is not “bravery,” but “chutzpah.” Obama is doing all he can to deflate the notion that Ryan’s plan is brave. But Obama is just beginning to draw these contrasts, while Republicans have been sharpening their message for years.
Obama also returned to a narrative liberals have been angry with him for abandoning over the past few years — reminding everyone how the deficit got so large in the first place:
What happened then was we went through 10 years where we forgot what had created the surplus in the first place. So we had a massive tax cut that wasn’t offset by cuts in spending. We had two wars that weren’t paid for. And this was the first time in history where we had gone to war and not asked for additional sacrifice from American citizens. We had a huge prescription drug plan that wasn’t paid for.
And so by the time I started office we already had about a trillion-dollar annual deficit and we had massive accumulated debt with interest payments to boot. Then you have this huge recession. And so what happens is less revenue is coming in -- because company sales are lower, individuals are making less money -- at the same time there’s more need out there. So we’re having to help states and we’re having to help local governments.
This is welcome, because the administration had for too long failed to emphasize President George W. Bush’s role in creating the deficit, possibly because they didn’t want to make the president look as though he was passing the buck to his predecessor rather than taking responsibility for his duties. But for the past few years, Republicans have behaved as though massive deficits were simply the result of Obama’s spending decisions, even though this obviously isn’t the case.
Democrats have an ingrown messaging problem as a party — as a more heterodox ideological group than Republicans, it’s sometimes difficult to get everyone on the same page. So it’s still unclear whether this is the kind of message that Democrats as a party can unify behind — and Obama won’t be able to rally public opinion by himself. He’ll need effective surrogates who can drive the message the same way Republicans have for years now.
The larger problem however, is that this tougher tone from Obama is a departure from the pragmatic, post-ideological tone he struck regularly over the past two years. The question is whether people will actually buy Obama’s new version of the story, having heard another tale repeated untold times throughout the first half of his first term.