For some time now, a bunch of us have been wondering when — or whether — Obama would step up and make a strong case for an expansive vision of Democratic governance. With Republicans initiating what may be the most consequential argument over the proper role of government in decades — a debate over the legacy of the great liberal achievements of the 20th Century — we’ve all been wondering whether Obama would respond with a level of ambition and seriousness of purpose that he’s shown when taking on other big arguments.
By this standard — in rhetorical terms — it’s fair to say Obama delivered. Sure, the speech trafficked a bit in the usual “speaking hard truths to both sides” positioning. And speeches are the easy part: Obama’s words jarred against recent actions, and what Obama actually does in the months to come will be what either ratifies today’s promises or renders them meaningless. But Obama did offer perhaps the most ambitious defense he may have ever attempted of American liberalism and of what it means to be a Democrat.
Crucially, right at the outset, Obama cast the battle with the GOP as one over whether we are going to maintain the social safety net and the national social contract as we’ve understood it for decades — and cast this question as central to our national identity. He used a key word — “commitments” — to describe Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance, insisting: “We would not be a great country without those commitments.” In other words, the social safety net and the liberal social contract are indispensable components of America’s greatness.
Obama also made a strong moral case against the Paul Ryan vision, describing it as “less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America.” He offered a critique of the Beltway meme that Ryan’s proposals are “courageous” that, notably, was grounded in an ideal of social justice.
“There’s nothing courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it,” Obama said. “The America I know is generous and compassionate.”
Finally, Obama placed tax hikes for the rich at the very center of the debate, arguing that the “worst” thing about the GOP vision is this: “Even though we can’t afford to care for seniors and poor children, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy.”
There’s no ignoring the fact that such stirring rhetoric jars against Obama’s recent deal with Republicans to continue the tax cuts for the rich, and some will be understandably wary of his stated moral conviction about them. But the President did draw a sharp line — one that will be hard to climb down from — on the coming fight over whether to let them expire: “I refuse to renew them again.”
On entitlements, it’s true that Obama repeated the formulation — disliked on the left — that we will reform entitlements without “slashing” benefits for future generations, which leaves the door open to mere “cuts.” But Obama did draw a hard line on defending Medicare’s core mission, and crucially, he did so while reiterating the speech’s larger message, which was that the Democratic version of the social contract is inviolable.
“I will preserve these health care programs as a promise we make to each other in this society,” he said. “We will reform these programs, but we will not abandon the fundamental commitment this country has kept for generations.”
We cannot know right now whether the steadfastness of Obama’s rhetoric in defending core liberal and Democratic ideals will be matched by equal resoluteness in practice when the battles heat up and the temptation to make deals and jettison core priorities intensifies. But Obama did tell us in clear and unequivocal moral terms what he thinks it means to be a Democrat, and those who have been waiting for him to do so should be quite satisfied by what they heard.
UPDATE: In retrospect, it was wrong of me to suggest that Obama positioned himself between two “allegedly equivalent extremes.” The President was very agressive in calling out the radicalism of the right, and it wasn’t drawing an equivalence with the left when he insisted that doing nothing on the deficit is not an option. His tone was more one of speaking hard truth to both sides, though of course, liberals will continue to protest that the prioritization of the deficit itself is a concession of sorts to the right. I’ve edited the above in the interests of fairness.