Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Man Who Wasn't There Shows Up

I was quite surprised by Obama's speech today on the deficit. First, of course, he actually stood for something besides bipartisanship. That is to say that while making  it clear he was willing to compromise, he staked out a position some distance away from the Republican position, instead of compromising in advance.

Compromise is a tricky issue for a politician, particularly for a President. One the one hand, the voters seem to hate partisan bickering and want politicians to get things done. On the other hand, politicians pay a penalty for changing their minds, even from the wrong position to the right one. And for a President, perhaps because of the national-security side of the job, looking weak is politically fatal. ( See the 2004 campaign.)  A President is probably better off standing for almost anything than standing for nothing. It helps, of course, when you're taking positions that are overwhelmingly popular: in favor of Medicare, in favor of taxing the rich.

So the fact of his taking a strong position was striking. But what really made me rub my eyes was that for the first time in a long time, he actually did what I've been waiting, and waiting, for him to do: educate the public. Use the bully pulpit. Give them facts: Social Security didn't cause the deficit. The budget was in surplus, hence the national debt was declining, when Bill Clinton left office. Discretionary non-military spending is only twelve percent of the budget. That struck me as the most unusual aspect of his speech, and so far seems to have been overlooked by most of the commentariat. (Fellow Ph.D.-- actually D. Phil.-- Rachel Maddow was an exception.)

Most of all, he had facts about the taboo topic in Washington, the elephant in the room: what's been happening to the U.S. income distribution: "In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90% of all working Americans actually declined. The top 1% saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. And that's who needs to pay less taxes? They want to give people like me a two hundred thousand dollar tax cut that's paid for by asking thirty-three seniors to each pay six thousand dollars more in health costs?" Maybe that's too many figures, but I liked it, and so did Dr. Maddow.

Republicans were taken aback. (Did you know, btw, that "taken aback" is an term from the era of square-rigged sailing ships, meaning having the wind shift to directly in front of the sails? I just learned that.) I thought Paul Ryan, the author of the Republican plan, who normally looks about seventeen anyway, seemed a bit childish saying he was "disappointed in the President" for the "partisan" tone of his speech. Granted, his proposal got hammered pretty hard by Obama, but I think he would've done better with a little more of the Happy Warrior and a little less of Grumpy the Dwarf.

I haven't seen any details yet, so it's quite possible there will be big problems with Obama's plan. I'm still a little skeptical that it actually calls for taxes on the very rich to go up much. But rhetoric matters too, by shaping what becomes a topic of discussion, and thus what gets done. Life was easy for the GOP when they could operate in the space of the rhetorical vacuum left by Obama.

 Now, this looks like a very difficult fight for the Republicans to win.

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