Perhaps most of all, the speech was widely noted for engaging in partisanship, rather than staying above the squabbling. (By one count, he spent one-sixth of his speech denouncing the Ryan plan.) Opinion writers on the right have called his speech “the kind Presidents usually outsource to some junior lieutenant” and a “fundamentally political document [that] would have been unusual even for a Vice President in the fervor of a campaign.” Their message? Obama didn’t show presidential leadership in stooping to partisan bickering and jumping into the political fray.
This is misplaced criticism, in my mind. Obama’s “critique” of Ryan’s plan was sharp but not personal; partisan but not ugly. Even though he outlined his opponents’ proposals in grimly pessimistic terms, he did give them credit for the effort and called their goals worthy. While some may think it unseemly for a president to critique his opponent in such stark terms, is it really worse than shying away from standing up for your party’s beliefs, something many on the left have been complaining Obama hasn’t done much of lately, either?
Rather, where the president failed to exude strong leadership was in offering few specifics about new ideas for resolving what truly may be the most critical issue facing this country. Obama says he’ll eliminate more unspecified wasteful spending in the defense budget after a vague-sounding “fundamental review.” He talks about cutting wasteful subsidies and erroneous payments from Medicare. But earlier in the speech, he complains that “politicians are often eager to feed the impression that solving the problem is just a matter of eliminating waste and abuse.” Isn’t he doing the same thing?
He was most specific when it came to taxes, saying firmly that he won’t allow the Bush tax cuts to be renewed again. But even if he was forceful, the idea—restoring Clinton-era taxes and cutting itemized deductions on the wealthiest Americans—was not really new. If anything, the most surprising statement in his tax discussion (and the one that will surely be repeated over and over again) was the idea that wealthy Americans apparently want to “give back to their country” by paying higher taxes, “it's just Washington hasn't asked them to.” Cue the Fox News sound-bite film.
Even if Obama’s speech showed leadership in certain ways—reminding listeners of government’s social contract, standing up for democratic ideals, and taking a decisive line on what he will refuse to do in the future—many of the actual solutions in Obama’s speech felt like something we’d all heard before. Even if I personally disagree with much of the bold ideas in Rep. Ryan’s plan, Obama’s proposal seemed to be lacking for not countering those ideas with big, new, specific alternatives for a tremendous issue facing our country. And that, more than any partisan commentary, was the leadership problem with Obama’s speech.
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