But rhetoric and policy are not the same thing. And in this case, as in far too many, the policy agenda the president has laid out is not worthy of, in his words, “the America we believe in.”
To begin with, the president continues to let Republicans define the playing field in almost every instance. Why is the debate we are having not about whether to cut, but how much to cut? Why isn’t it about the urgency of joblessness instead of the perils of deficits? The budget the president proposed is clearly influenced by a discredited conservative economic worldview. It shouldn’t be accepted as the “progressive” alternative in the negotiations soon to come.
What’s worse is that, even on this narrow playing field, the president isn’t fighting harder for those who need government’s support the most. He has jettisoned the Keynesian thinking this era demands, prematurely embracing what might be described an austerity-lite policy, one that all but guarantees mass unemployment as the new normal.
In his speech, he spoke eloquently of how there was “nothing courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill.” Nothing courageous, indeed. And yet it is President Obama who has said that for every $1 in tax increases, we should create $2 in spending cuts. Faced with the choice between new cuts to the social safety net and new taxes for the richest few, it is not just Paul Ryan but President Obama whose acceptance of the way this choice is framed leaves the poor shouldering most of the burden.
The most progressive president since Lyndon Johnson should be willing to embrace a bolder opening gambit. He should not be so willing to compromise on principle, even when ultimate compromise may be necessary. Real leadership might require compromise, but it cannot be defined by compromise. It must instead be defined by a clear vision for the future, and most important, a willingness to defend it. It should be focused not on what is possible, but instead, on the most that is possible; not the path of least resistance, but the path of maximum potential benefit.
Failing to do so is what can produce a Tea Party budget, such as the one adopted last week. As Paul Krugman put it in his column this week, the two parties “don’t just live in different moral universes, they also live in different intellectual universes.” Any embrace or acceptance of that Republican universe by the White House is a retreat from the reforms this country desperately needs — and was promised.