Two and a half years into Barack Obama's presidency, my biggest disappointment has been his unwillingness or inability to articulate a coherent and resonant message about the proper role of progressive government in 21st century America. Obama the candidate seemed to promise both a return to progressive values--the rule of law, respect for individual freedoms, an unapologetic defense of the signature Democratic policy achievements of the last century (and expansion of them into this one) and the regulatory state--and a technocratic expertise in governance that would be appropriately humble about the limits of what could and should be done at the federal level which would manifest both in domestic policy (hence the repeated tips of the cap toward behavioral economics) and internationally.
On much of that, he simply hasn't delivered. The Obama administration has institutionalized nearly all of the Bush/Cheney Security State, continued the dumbassed and fiscally ruinous war on drugs, and viciously pursued whistle-blowers. There have been a few advances--perhaps most notably, the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell--but by and large, the record on values is disappointing for liberals. Likewise the president's embrace of Republican frames in domestic policymaking: seemingly everything he's said has indicated acceptance of core premises that the federal government is feckless and inefficient. Even the battles he's "won," such as passage of the stimulus, Affordable Care Act and (if you care to call this a victory at all) the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law, generally haven't featured strong pushback against the talking points of the right.
Obama likely would assert that his use of stronger language or clearer contrasts with political opponents might have jeopardized even those accomplishments, furthering the very perception of government ineptitude that constrains him and Democrats more generally. This may or may not be true, but that perception endures anyway--as does the sense that this president has no stomach for big fights. His problem in this area is that presidential greatness doesn't come without conflict; it isn't achieved without risk, without a willingness to set one's position in clear contrast to that of the other side and offer the public the clearest possible choice. Ronald Reagan did that, in his time; Bill Clinton really didn't in his, which is why (as Obama himself noted during the '08 campaign) Reagan was a transformational president while Clinton was basically the most fun and interesting guest at the kick-ass party that was the 1990s.
This week, when he set his own view for deficit reduction against that of the Republicans, we might finally have seen Obama come out swinging:
[The Republican plan] says up to 50 million Americans have to lose their health insurance in order for us to reduce the deficit. Who are these 50 million Americans? Many are somebody's grandparents -- may be one of yours -- who wouldn't be able to afford nursing home care without Medicaid. Many are poor children. Some are middle-class families who have children with autism or Down's syndrome. Some of these kids with disabilities are -- the disabilities are so severe that they require 24-hour care. These are the Americans we'd be telling to fend for themselves.
And worst of all, this is a vision that says even though Americans can't afford to invest in education at current levels, or clean energy, even though we can't afford to maintain our commitment on Medicare and Medicaid, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy. Think about that.
In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90 percent of all working Americans actually declined. Meanwhile, the top 1 percent saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. That's who needs to pay less taxes?
They want to give people like me a $200,000 tax cut that's paid for by asking 33 seniors each to pay $6,000 more in health costs. That's not right. And it's not going to happen as long as I'm President. (Applause.)
This vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America. Ronald Reagan's own budget director said, there's nothing "serious" or "courageous" about this plan. There's nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And I don't think there's anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don't have any clout on Capitol Hill. That's not a vision of the America I know.
The America I know is generous and compassionate. It's a land of opportunity and optimism. Yes, we take responsibility for ourselves, but we also take responsibility for each other; for the country we want and the future that we share. We're a nation that built a railroad across a continent and brought light to communities shrouded in darkness. We sent a generation to college on the GI Bill and we saved millions of seniors from poverty with Social Security and Medicare. We have led the world in scientific research and technological breakthroughs that have transformed millions of lives. That's who we are. This is the America that I know. We don't have to choose between a future of spiraling debt and one where we forfeit our investment in our people and our country.
Without glossing over the details absent from the president's plan and its at least arguable want of real political courage (it's unlikely in the extreme that we can get to balance without any new taxes, directly or indirectly, on the middle class), this is both enormously preferable on the substance and a political winner. Every Democrat on the ballot next year should echo that "34 seniors pay $6400 more for health care so a billionaire can get a $200,000 tax cut" line, as it's the best representation yet of the clear truth that Republicans care less about deficit reduction than they do for tax cuts.
The fanatical Republican resistance even to tax reform that might close some distorting loopholes, let alone tax increases or expiration of fiscally irresponsible tax cuts, is one of the two biggest problems in this debate. The other is their refusal to understand why the US in the 20th century enjoyed both the largest and the most equitably distributed prosperity in history: our unprecedented investments in human capital. Enormous (and largely collective) investment in education begat the first mass middle class; as we start to disinvest, at least in relative terms, the middle class comes under increasing strain. I'm pretty sure Obama gets this, as he articulated in both his state of the union speech and Wednesday's address, and his team has reiterated in the vapid but probably effective "win the future" sound bite.
Staying focused on both these points gives him the edge over the Republicans in the contest for "who gets to be the grown-up," which is a decent proxy for who wins independent voters next year. It further helps that whoever gets to engage Obama in that fight as the Republican presidential nominee probably first has to go far, far in the other direction: it's only possible to win that nomination by catering to the most distorted, fact-resistant right-wing fantasies, both in terms of things like Obama's place of birth and the idea that the budget can be brought into balance solely by cutting Things Liberals Like (NPR, foreign aid). The cultivation and constant reinforcement of a hardcore 15-20 percent of the electorate on the far right helped the Republicans win back the House last year; next year, what's required to keep that base happy might have the effect of giving Obama a second term--another requirement for presidents who aspire to transformational status.