President Obama made clear tonight that the debate over the debt ceiling is not left vs. right. It’s center vs. right. There was nothing remotely “left” in this speech, unless you count higher taxes for corporate jet owners and a few other populist bits.
He summarized his approach this way: “[L]et’s live within our means by making serious, historic cuts in government spending. Let’s cut domestic spending to the lowest level it’s been since Dwight Eisenhower was president. Let’s cut defense spending at the Pentagon by hundreds of billions of dollars. Let’s cut out the waste and fraud in health care programs like Medicare — and at the same time, let’s make modest adjustments so that Medicare is still there for future generations. Finally, let’s ask the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations to give up some of their tax breaks and special deductions.”
That’s four sentences on cuts and barely one sentence on taxes, and not even tax increases as such — just a request that the privileged “give up some of their tax breaks and special deductions.”
On the other side are “a significant number of Republicans in Congress [who] are insisting on a cuts-only approach — an approach that doesn’t ask the wealthiest Americans or biggest corporations to contribute anything at all.” He went on: “And because nothing is asked of those at the top of the income scales, such an approach would close the deficit only with more severe cuts to programs we all care about — cuts that place a greater burden on working families.”
That happens to be true. The most remarkable thing about this whole debate (other than the dangerous foolishness of one side holding the nation’s credit standing hostage to get what it wants) is that Republicans have defined their party as being committed to low taxes for the wealthy above everything else. If anything good can come out of this strange episode, it is that no one will ever be able to doubt that proposition in the future.
There were some nice touches in Obama’s address. Who would ever have imagined that it was Ronald Reagan who said: “Would you rather reduce deficits and interest rates by raising revenue from those who are not now paying their fair share, or would you rather accept larger budget deficits, higher interest rates, and higher unemployment? And I think I know your answer.”
It was also good that right out of the box, Obama reminded Americans where the big deficits came from – and where we were when President George W. Bush took office: “In the year 2000, the government had a budget surplus,” Obama said. “But instead of using it to pay off our debt, the money was spent on trillions of dollars in new tax cuts, while two wars and an expensive prescription-drug program were simply added to our nation’s credit card. As a result, the deficit was on track to top $1 trillion the year I took office.” He then explained that the deficit grew further because of the Great Recession, the drop in tax receipts it caused, and the spending he undertook to keep it from being worse. It was a direct hit at Republicans who seemed not to worry about deficits until Obama took office — and now blame him for much of the red ink they themselves spilled.
And after his angry news conference on Friday, it was a nice touch for him to wrap his arms around his main Republican adversary. “And to his credit, this is the kind of approach” – that would be the one Obama was advancing – “the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, was working on with me over the last several weeks.” It did raise the question of which side Boehner is really on.
As for Boehner’s speech, he looked pretty good — that green tie was striking — but his speech was directed more to the right-wing base than to the crisis at hand. “The sad truth is that the president wanted a blank check six months ago, and he wants a blank check today,” Boehner said. “That is just not going to happen.” Please. As Obama pointed out, he just wanted what Reagan got 18 times and George W. Bush got seven times — a normal debt-ceiling increase. And I wish the GOP would stop talking about its “Cut, Cap and Balance” bill as “bipartisan.” It got 240 votes, of which only five were from Democrats. It was opposed by 190 House members, of whom nine were Republicans. So opposition to their bill was more “bipartisan” than the support it got.
On the issue we now confront, the Senate proposal to raise the debt ceiling is much more sensible than the House plan because it insists that we not go through this charade again until Americans get their say at the ballot box a year from November. The most persuasive argument in Obama’s speech may thus have been this one: “Based on what we’ve seen these past few weeks, we know what to expect six months from now. The House will once again refuse to prevent default unless the rest of us accept their cuts-only approach. . . . And once again, the economy will be held captive unless they get their way.”
This whole mess is not making any politician in Washington look good. Obama has taken a modest hit in his approval ratings, but the Republicans are taking a bigger hit. My hunch is that Obama’s speech spoke more to middle-of-the-road Americans than Boehner’s did because Obama was clearly talking to them. Boehner has to prove over and over that he’s faithful to the folks at the right end of his caucus, and it’s starting to take a toll. That’s why Republicans may yet find themselves wanting to get the debt-ceiling matter out of the way without forcing another round of this madness.