Under pressure from Republicans, President Obama offered a broad vision for solving the nation’s long-term fiscal problems Wednesday. This was not a speech about dollars and cents as much as it was an appeal for Americans to think about what kind of country they want and how they define shared sacrifice.
Obama’s address left many questions unanswered, but there was no doubt that the president and his White House advisers regarded it as one of the most important political speeches he will make in his second two years in office. It was an effort to regain the offensive in a debate that will dominate budget negotiations for the rest of this year and will probably shape the choices voters will face in the 2012 presidential election.
In a speech on the budget Wednesday, President Obama proposed a $4 trillion deficit reduction over the next 12 years.
A look at the differences between President Obama’s 2012 spending proposal and the House GOP plan.
Obama’s debt speech
Read the transcript
Obama appeared to have two goals in mind. First, he sought to demonstrate that he is serious about solving the debt and deficit problems that threaten the country’s fiscal future. Second, he needed to prove to Democrats that he is prepared to take on the Republicans and fight for policies that his party has long stood for.
The question is whether he can do both. The angry reaction from many Republicans suggests he may have widened the gulf between the two sides, although bipartisan talks in the Senate continue.
In the recent negotiations over funding the government for the rest of this fiscal year, Obama gave considerable ground, at least in the overall size of the spending cuts. His concessions alarmed many Democrats, who fear that he will continue to yield to the GOP in the future. Wednesday’s speech was an effort to say that there are lines he will not cross in the coming talks about raising the debt ceiling and about future budgets.
The president has been on the defensive for weeks in the budget debates, and his hand was called when House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) announced his long-term fiscal blueprint last week. In responding, Obama laid down clear markers that established profound differences in governing philosophy.
Obama said the GOP proposal offers worthy goals for stabilizing the budget, but he took sharp exception to the path it would follow. “The way this plan achieves those goals would lead to a fundamentally different America than the one we’ve known, certainly in my lifetime,” he said. “In fact, I think it would be fundamentally different than what we’ve known throughout our history.”
Obama charged that the Republicans would threaten the social compact that long has governed society. What he hopes to prove is that that compact can be maintained while stabilizing the government’s fiscal condition. “To meet our fiscal challenge, we will need to make reforms.” he said. “We will all need to make sacrifices. But we do not have to sacrifice the America we believe in. And as long as I’m president, we won’t.”
By all the old rules of politics, Obama would appear to be on solid ground in many of his arguments. He said he will oppose Republican proposals to turn Medicaid into a block grant to the states and to sharply limit the amount of money the government spends on health care for poor people. He said he is against turning Medicare into a voucher program, as Ryan’s blueprint proposes, even though some Democratic deficit-reduction plans move somewhat in that direction.