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Posted by on Apr 14, 2011 in Economy, Politics | 0 comments

Obama’s Speech: Serious Reset or Recycled Political Rhetoric?

The key consensus on President Barack Obama’s speech on the budget and deficit is this: the 2012 Presidential campaign is now underway. But on the actual content?

Much, but not all, of the reaction is (as always) coming from pre-existing political conditions (which makes independent voters beware): Republicans and conservatives dismiss or denounce it and are angry, moderates seems split or ambivilent and liberals seem to feel relieved that — in his words in this speech, at least — Obama is defending the values that helped enact the New Deal and Great Society legislation and once more sounds like the 2008 Obama. One bit of consensus: Obama does not seem totally trusted by any side.

In his speech, Obama vowed to trim the projected deficit by $4 trillion in the next 12 years, and promised to protect seniors, women and the poor — and issued a pledge that he will not approve a tax break for the wealthiest Americans. Full details on his speech including a transcript are here and here.

There have been various perceptions of Barack Obama but this time — in terms of rhetoric, at least — he returned to his campaign roots.

What happens next?

Democrats and Republicans still seem so totally apart that the stage is set for more political brinksmanship, partisan and ideological polemics in a super-high-stakes game going into 2012 that could include a major drama over the debt ceiling that even if it doesn’t go to the mat could negatively impact the American — and international — economy.

It all boils down to the political context. By most accounts, the GOP has chance to retake the House and take the Senate. If it could get the Presidency, House and Senate the Reagan and Tea Party revolutions could be complete. Democrats know this and some Dems believe Republicans overreaching could be their party’s biggest plus in 2012.

Most notable about yesterday’s speech and its context:

  • Obama drew a line in the sand about keeping tax cuts for the rich.
  • Obama turned part of the speech to examine the longstanding perception of America and what it meant in helping its most vulnerable citizens. He noted what yankking out safenets — or making he safety nets demonstrably smaller — could mean to America.
  • Obama emphasized how GOP policies are tilted towards business and the wealthiest while the less well off under Paul Ryan’s budget would be asked to sacrifice more.
  • For now, at least, he reassured his party’s liberal wing that he isn’t planning to give away the farm to the GOP on Social Security or Medicare. Key unknown: as negotiations progress on this will he adjust this pledge and can he sell an adjusted position to his party’s base?
  • In several passages the language was more like a tough campaign speech than a policy statement. Obama reportedly invited Rep. Paul Ryan to be in the audience and Ryan reportedly left due to the tone of the speech. Not a good sign. Or is it? Will Obama emerge now as more of the kind of fighter his party’s base wants to see?
  • Obama’s big problem remains this: he is not feared by his party’s liberal base or by Republicans.

    By now many have concluded he can give a good prepared speech. But the jury is still out whether he can prevail in tough negotiations or is willing to go out on the hustings to pull out all stops to sell his vision of America — if, indeed, the speech reflected his vision and was not a tactical speech aimed at positioning him.

    By several published and broadcast accounts yesterday the White House believes it has a good issue now by trying to link up all Republicans with Ryan’s plan to essentially eliminate the existing way Medicare is administered and by the Republicans’ plans to trim entitlements and still give tax cuts to the rich.

    The bottom line question is: will this speech ultimately prove to be a political and economic reset or just recycled political rhetoric that months from now will be shown to have been meaningless in terms of the outcome or the direction of Obama and his Presidency?

    And will this prove to make it harder or easier for Republicans to press their agenda and rally supporters — and independent voters — to their side?

    UPDATE: The White House has issued this fact sheet on the speech.

    Here’s a cross section of reaction to Obama’s speech:

    The Daily Beast’s John Avlon:

    And while it is both right and politically courageous for a president to point out the increasing wealth disparity in America, Obama’s announcement that he would focus on closing itemized deductions for the top rate only opened him up to accusations of class warfare on the campaign trail. It is apparently a fight he thinks he can win going into 2012.

    The frame of the speech was a passionate defense of Obama’s vision of America, a vision that balances the tradition of “rugged individualism” with the more community-based values that were just as essential to settling the West.

    He frankly pointed out the soft hypocrisy of everyday Americans who “dislike government spending in the abstract but like the stuff that it buys.” And he was unapologetic in setting up his biggest applause line of the speech: “They want to give people like me a two hundred thousand dollar tax cut that’s paid for by asking 33 seniors to each pay $6,000 more in health costs? That’s not right, and it’s not going to happen as long as I’m president.”

    President Obama presented this proposal as his opening bid in the long negotiation to come. The speech was a success in setting out his values and rooting them in a Democratic vision of the American tradition, but it fell far short in offering specifics. He seems content to frame the debate rather than lead the conversation with concrete proposals.

    The Atlantic’s Clive Crook thinks it was a waste of breath:

    Obama had a difficult assignment in this speech, partly because of the exaggerated hopes for it (see previous post). Even allowing for that, it was weak both politically and substantively. My instant unguarded reaction, in fact, was to find it not just weak but pitiful. I honestly wondered why he bothered.

    There was no sign of anything worth calling a plan to curb borrowing faster than in the budget. He offered no more than a list of headings under which $4 trillion of deficit reduction (including the $2 trillion already in his budget) might be found–domestic non-security spending, defense, health costs, and tax reform. Fine, sure. But what he said was devoid of detail. He spent more of his time stressing what he would not agree to than describing clear proposals of his own.

    His rebuttal of the Ryan plan was all very well–I agree it’s no good–but the administration still lacks a rival plan. That, surely, is what this speech had to provide, or at least point to, if it was going to be worth giving in the first place. His criticisms of Ryan and the Republicans need no restating. And did the country need another defense of public investment in clean energy and the American social contract? It wanted to be told how fiscal policy is going to be mended: if not by the Ryan plan, with its many grave defects, then how?

    Bowles-Simpson is the right basic answer…

    The Washington Post’s Dan Balz:

    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.

    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.

    Grover Norquist in The Daily Beast:

    We learned several things from President Obama’s speech today promising to revise the budget he presented to America as a serious effort only 60 days ago. First, he is running for re-election on “hope and change.” He will not run as the president dealing with the overspending problem he exacerbated, but as a commentator on the passing scene. “Oh, there’s a train wreck. Not good. Someone should do something soon.” He rushed out to respond inside the news cycle to the Paul Ryan 2012 budget plan, which will reduce Obama’s federal government spending by $6 trillion over the next 10 years. His own plan is to sort of endorse a series of essays written by two aged politicians: Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. Quick: make a list of tax increases and spending cuts the president said he would fight for in this budget. I don’t know either.

    Second, Obama is scared of Ryan’s budget plan. He does not think it is politically risky for the Republicans. His political advisers have known the outlines of Paul Ryan’s budget for months. It has been scored by the CBO. It is actually written down in English. If Chicago believed Paul Ryan’s budget was a giant target, Obama would have offered nothing in reaction and allowed the Ryan plan to be criticized for six Sunday shows in a row.

    MSNBC’s First Read:

    *** Obama’s three audiences: President Obama’s deficit/debt/entitlement speech yesterday appeared to have three audiences. Those elusive independent voters were his first audience, and he told them he would cut the budget but with balance and sacrifice for all. Democratic liberals upset by Friday’s spending-cut deal and December’s tax-cut deal made up a second audience. To them, Obama gave a full-throated defense of the safety-net programs and vowed he would sunset the tax cuts for the wealthy. Republicans were his final audience. To them, he skewered their proposal to phase out Medicare and to keep those tax cuts for the wealthy. And Obama delivered another message to the GOP: It was under their party’s previous president and GOP-controlled Congress that began racking up the deficits. In short, the speech was as much about defining the GOP budget plan — coming before the House votes on the Ryan proposal on Friday — as it was checking the box on addressing the deficit and debt.


    *** Other quick thoughts on yesterday’s speech: While Paul Ryan’s move to go first in the entitlement debate “smoked” out Obama, as an Urban Institute fellow told the New York Times, Ryan’s plan gave Obama a foil — and a chance to lay out a potentially optimistic campaign message against what he sees as the GOP’s pessimistic plan. Put another way, it allows the incumbent to be able to run against something in 2012. Yet the speech also was inconsistent by blasting the GOP idea but then calling for both sides to still come together. Obama even acknowledged the inconsistency yesterday. “Though I’m sure the criticism of what I’ve said here today will be fierce in some quarters, and my critique of the House Republican approach has been strong, Americans deserve and will demand that we all make an effort to bridge our differences and find common ground,” he said.

    The Wall Street Journal:

    Did someone move the 2012 election to June 1? We ask because President Obama’s extraordinary response to Paul Ryan’s budget yesterday—with its blistering partisanship and multiple distortions—was the kind Presidents usually outsource to some junior lieutenant. Mr. Obama’s fundamentally political document would have been unusual even for a Vice President in the fervor of a campaign.

    The immediate political goal was to inoculate the White House from criticism that it is not serious about the fiscal crisis, after ignoring its own deficit commission last year and tossing off a $3.73 trillion budget in February that increased spending amid a record deficit of $1.65 trillion. Mr. Obama was chased to George Washington University yesterday because Mr. Ryan and the Republicans outflanked him on fiscal discipline and are now setting the national political agenda.

    Mr. Obama did not deign to propose an alternative to rival Mr. Ryan’s plan, even as he categorically rejected all its reform ideas, repeatedly vilifying them as essentially un-American. “Their vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America,” he said, supposedly pitting “children with autism or Down’s syndrome” against “every millionaire and billionaire in our society.” The President was not attempting to join the debate Mr. Ryan has started, but to close it off just as it begins and banish House GOP ideas to political Siberia.

    Mr. Obama then packaged his poison in the rhetoric of bipartisanship—which “starts,” he said, “by being honest about what’s causing our deficit.” The speech he chose to deliver was dishonest even by modern political standards.

    Fox News contributor and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer via a post in The Daily Caller:

    “I thought it was a disgrace,” he said. “I rarely heard a speech by a president so shallow, so hyper-partisan and so intellectually dishonest, outside the last couple of weeks of a presidential election where you are allowed to call your opponent anything short of a traitor. But, we’re a year-and-a-half away from Election Day and it was supposed to be a speech about policy. He didn’t even get to his own alternative until more than halfway through the speech. And when he did, he threw out numbers suspended in mid-air with nothing under them with all kinds of goals and guidelines and triggers that mean nothing. The speech was really about and entirely an attack on the [Rep. Paul] Ryan plan.”

    Diary writer tdsfl1 in Daily Kos:

    I preface this by saying that I am not a person in the know and I damn sure cant claim to be the sharpest knife in the drawer but I think I do know this one thing. OBAMA HEARD THE LEFT!

    Ezra Klein:

    For some time now, Democrats and Republicans alike have been yearning for a great philosophical clash between the two parties. No more of this five percent of 12 percent of the federal budget stuff. We wanted entitlements, the role of government, the obligations that the old have to the young, that the rich have to the poor, that the powerful have to the powerless.

    Paul Ryan’s budget offer exactly that sort of reconstruction of the social compact. America is a very different place before his budget than it would be after his budget. But though Obama’s speech was closer to that sort of clash of visions than anything he’s offered before — he used the word “vision” 15 times, for instance — what he offered was not philosophy. It was policy. But you have to read it closely — and know where it came from — to see that.

    Ed Morrissey:

    We expected Barack Obama to offer little new in his speech on the budget; I’m not sure we expected as much repetition as we got. Bookended by rhetoric on the kind of America in which he wanted to live, Obama gave a four-step plan to confront the massive and crippling deficits ahead of us that entirely relies on the kind of proposals he’s already aired in the past. He gave little in the way of specifics, and made no mention at all of his deficit commission again….

    ….If it was possible to fail to meet the already-low expectations set for this speech beforehand, Obama managed to do it. Not only did Obama fail to resurrect his own deficit commission’s plan, he offered nothing specific in response to the specifics Paul Ryan and the GOP have already laid on the table. It’s almost impossible to present a substantive criticism of the proposal because it contains nothing substantive, an impression that more and more people have of this White House.

    David Neiwert on Crooks and Liars:

    My favorite part of the president’s speech on the budget today was when he eviscerated Rep. Paul Ryan’s phony “Path to Prosperity”….This, of course, deeply upset Rep. Ryan…

    If Ryan is going to accuse the president of being “dramatically inaccurate,” he better be ready to back it up. As you can see, Obama’s evisceration of the Ryan budget was based on a set of well-established facts.

    In the meantime, I’m sure you’ll all join me in playing “Cry Me a River” on the world’s smallest violin for Ryan. Especially when he calls Obama’s budget outline “doubling down on the failed politics of the past.” Projection, anyone? There was no greater failure than the economic politics of George W. “I Never Met A Tax Cut For the Wealthy I Didn’t Like” Bush — and Ryan’s plan is Bushism on steroids.

    Doug Mataconis:

    The President spoke before an audience of mostly college students this afternoon and outlined his plan to attack America’s budget deficits by cutting $4 trillion over the next twelve years. The problem is, he didn’t really offer many specifics and the speech seemed more like that opening salvo of a political campaign than a call for all parties to come together and attack a serious problem before it gets worse….

    ….Republicans will call this “socialism,” but it’s actually just the New Deal and the Great Society, both of which have been around for at least a generation now. While I could spend several blog posts pointing out the economic inefficiencies that most of these programs have created, or their Constitutional problems, the fact of the matter is that these programs are generally accepted now, and nearly every effort to radically transform them has been rejected out of hand. President Obama is betting that the American people want these programs to stick around in largely their present form, and he’s probably right. The fact that we’re fast approaching the point where we might no longer to be able to afford this safety net we’ve all become used to ? Well that’s just an unpleasant fact that we won’t talk about right now.
    What this means for 2012 is quite simple. President Obama’s speech today wasn’t really about responding to Paul Ryan. Everyone knows that Ryan’s plan isn’t going to be adopted, at least not under this Congress and President. What this is all about is laying the ground work for 2012 and what promises to be the starkest debate over the role of government in American life that we’ve seen since the 1980?s. Or at least, that’s what I’d like to hope we’ll see.


    I tried to listen. Truly I did.

    But half way through I could not listen to his neo-bolshevik, revisionist hyperbole that just droned on and on.

    It’s like this guy believes he’s totally removed from the massive tripling of the deficit he’s cultivated while in office, and that he just dropped down from the mother ship to survey the damage and offer some advice…

    Ron Chusid:

    Republicans, who ran up the deficit while claiming that deficits do not matter, have not been very serious about solving the problem they created. Paul Ryan’s proposal should be called the Banana Republican Budget as this is what it would turn the United States into. The Republican proposal primarily shifts wealth even more to the ultra-wealthy, does far less to reduce the deficit than claimed, and takes Draconian steps, including eliminating Medicare as a meaningful program. Barack Obama’s response lacked detail but was important for making an attempt to reframe the debate.

    It is hard to do anything about the deficit is that the people who speak out the most against the deficit (such as those in the Tea Party movement) are totally ignorant about the actual causes of the deficit, blaming Obama rather than Bush, and are the ones who are also the most opposed to ending tax breaks for the ultra-wealthy. It shows the effect of Fox and the right wing noise machine that it was necessary for Obama to explain simple concepts like why we need to keep government functions going for the common good in his budget address…

    The Christian Science Monitor’s editorial:

    In Washington, it seems as if everyone has a plan to reduce federal deficits and the pileup of debt that yearly deficits create. Today, President Obama finally offered his plan, a contrast to that of House Republican Paul Ryan. Now a full debate can begin.

    And what a debate it will be. The clash over federal spending just for the remainder of this year went to the 11th hour last week, narrowly avoiding a government shutdown.

    The next political trigger will come when the United States bumps up against its debt limit of $14.3 trillion next month, and Congress faces a vote to extend it. House Speaker John Boehner has said Republicans will not increase the debt ceiling without getting “something really, really big” to reduce the deficit….

    ….Lawmakers can also find encouragement in the abundance of plans out there: that of Representative Ryan, bipartisan plans by budget experts, the president’s plan, and one being worked on in the Senate by a group of Republicans and Democrats known as the Gang of Six. It’s not as if no one has given this much thought.

    The plans take different paths, but they at least have similar destinations. Ryan’s would reduce the deficit by almost $6 trillion over 10 years; the one put forward by Obama’s bipartisan commission in December would cut it by $4 trillion over the same time frame, and Obama’s aims for a $4 trillion cut over a dozen years.

    Both Obama and the Senate Gang of Six build on the work of the president’s bipartisan commission. That commission, in its December report, suggested that three-quarters of deficit reduction come from spending cuts and one-quarter from additional tax revenue, mainly in closing tax loopholes. However, the commission was vague on how to rein in the soaring costs of Medicare and Medicaid.

    Robert Creamer, writing on The Huffington Post:

    For several months, Washington conventional wisdom has convinced itself that President Obama — and Democrats in Congress — have been on the losing end of the deficit-budget debate. But with his speech yesterday, President Obama seized the high political ground in the budget war that will heavily define his second two years in office. Four factors have changed the political equation.

    First, Obama changed the frame of debate from the realm of policies, programs and green eye-shades into a contest between the progressive values that have always defined what is best in America and the radical conservative values of the Gilded Age.

    The right always goes to political war armed with a full complement of value-based arguments and symbols. They are very good at clothing the self-interest of Wall Street/CEO class in talk about freedom and individualism and self-reliance.

    We lose when we talk about policies and programs and they talk about right and wrong.

    But the moment we transform the debate into a contest between progressive and radical conservative values — between the progressive and conservative visions of the future — we completely change the political equation.

    Yesterday, President Obama argued that the debate about the federal budget is actually about two very different visions of American society.


    Barack Obama is not a serious man, and the speech he gave today did not outline a serious proposal to deal with the country’s debt crisis. In the first place, as ranking Senate Budget Committee member Jeff Sessions has emphasized, a speech by itself is meaningless. If Obama wants to make a serious debt reduction proposal, it has to be presented in detail, in budgetary form, so that it can be analyzed properly and scored by the Congressional Budget Office. Obama hasn’t done that; instead, he purports to shave trillions off the national debt with breathtaking insouciance…

    ….One blindingly obvious fact about Obama’s speech is that it almost completely ignored the fact that he submitted a budget for FY 2012 just 60 days ago that included projections for the next decade. That budget has now been torn up and thrown into the wastebasket in favor of whatever ultimately emerges from today’s speech. Today, Obama twice referred, obliquely, to his own FY 2012 budget, both times to explain that he is now proposing something different. But what are we to make of the fact that a 60-day-old budget proposal is now on the scrap heap? Why did our President change his mind? Why is he now purporting to reduce our debt by trillions more than he claimed just two months ago? He offers no explanation, but I will suggest one: Obama’s FY 2012 budget was an irresponsible joke. Today’s speech was an irresponsible joke too, but, after the battle over the FY 2011 continuing resolution, the political environment–the only thing that Obama actually understands or cares about–is different. So his supposed blueprint for the next decade is yesterday’s news.

    …The third thing that jumps out at one about Obama’s speech is its contemptible tone. Its real object, and the topic on which he spent the most time, was Paul Ryan’s budget proposal. His attack on Ryan’s plan was eerily reminiscent of the most disgusting political speech in American history, Ted Kennedy’s vicious caricature of “Robert Bork’s America.” Obama launched a similarly dishonorable assault on Paul Ryan and the House Republicans..