For those of us who don't think the deficits really are the biggest problem facing the country at the moment or that a Democratic president ever should capitulate to the idea that spending is the cause of our current problems, this speech was never going to be very pleasing. But who cares about that? People like me are clearly irrelevant to this process. But there was still much to like about it. (For me the highlight was his historical framing of how the deficits were created and a strong denunciation of the Ryan plan.)
As with the earlier health care process, he has now established the leftward baseline for the coming negotiations with a speech that lays out a moral case for the social safety net and takes the other side to task for their destructive nihilism. I don't know how many people will see it -- "the deficit" makes even the wonkiest political junkie's eyes glaze over. But it's out there and if Obama makes this case over and over again on the road, it will penetrate.
The devil is in the details, of course, and this is an opening bid in the coming negotiations. His plan, as enunciated today, will not be the one that's enacted, I think we know that much. As I said, Obama has defined the leftward rhetorical pole of the debate and all negotiations will undoubtedly lead to the right. So it looks to me as if the sweet spot, if there is one, will be found --- again following the Health Care strategy --- in the Senate. And they are quite far along on creating a "balanced" bipartisan plan that he will probably find acceptable as the middle ground between his "liberal" vision and the House Ryan trainwreck.
Here's where they stand today:
Dick Durbin urges action on Social Security
Social Security reform and boosting government revenues are among the provisions that could be included in a deficit-reduction package being negotiated by a bipartisan group of senators.
The so-called “Gang of Six” is expected to unveil its proposals after the congressional Easter break, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, told reporters at a breakfast meeting hosted by Bloomberg News.
“If we can pull it off, we are the only bipartisan show in town. I think that means something,” he said.
The proposal would represent yet another option in a cacophonous debate over government spending and reducing the nation’s deficit that is just beginning in Washington.
The House on Friday is scheduled to begin debate on House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposal to trim more than $6 trillion over the next 10 years by revamping Medicare and Medicaid, slashing other entitlement programs, and cutting taxes.
President Barack Obama is expected to unveil his deficit-reduction plan in a speech Wednesday afternoon.
Durbin wouldn’t disclose specific proposals in the Senate measure, but said it will borrow significantly from the report issued by the president’s bipartisan deficit reduction commission last year.
The commission offered a pathway to cutting $4 trillion over the next 10 years.
Ryan gave Social Security only passing attention in his House budget proposal, and advocates for the retirement program are pressing to separate it from the debate, noting that while it may need some reform it, doesn’t add to the deficit.
But Durbin, a staunch supporter of Social Security, said putting the program on sounder financial footing now “is a lot easier” than waiting until it is nearly broke in 26 years.
In addition to representing the Senate Democratic leadership in the talks, Durbin has become a bridge to a liberal community chafing over a perceived lack of support for programs and issues it considers crucial.
The senator acknowledged he, too, was dubious of some of the apocalyptic predictions offered up by conservatives, including fellow-gang member Coburn, whose mantra on the deficit issue Durbin jokingly dubbed the “doomsday speech.”
He said he’s been convinced, however, that action is vital, and he’s urged progressive allies to consider their priorities in light of today’s fiscal realities.
It looks like he's got some other Democratic allies:
Several Democratic senators are separating themselves from their leadership and encouraging President Obama to cut Social Security benefits by raising the retirement age in order to keep the entitlement solvent.
Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen.Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who caucuses with the Democrats, are all openly calling for reform, and making it plain that the party is disunited on the issue when a titanic debate over debt is gathering momentum.
Aside from the inevitable tug-of-war over "entitlements" which I think are still very much on the table (the semantics of slashing vs "fixing" notwithstanding) the big question will be if they actually get any tax increases or if the president and the Democrats sign off on the the notion that cutting "tax expenditures" (aka the corporate tax attorney's full employment act") is the same as raising taxes. If Obama keeps his word this time and refuses to extend the Bush tax cuts and they are able to get Republicans and conservative Democrats to sign on to real tax hikes in an election year, I will be stunned and gratified. I can guarantee you that Norquist and the boyz are going to hang it around politicians' necks --- his entire reason for being will be called into question if he doesn't. So it's a big deal --- indeed, it's an act of hara kiri for quite a few Republicans. Maybe they're just that patriotic, who knows?
I like it when Obama speaks about values and frames these arguments in moral terms and I think he did it well today. The concept of "balance" in today's Washington sends chills down my spine, but again, my opinion on this irrelevant. The vast majority of Democrats trust the president to look after their interests and Independents like the idea of bipartisan solutions regardless of the details, so this makes sense for him. But the themes he struck about the commitment to seniors and the less fortunate are important themes for the president to reiterate, for the good of our society as a whole.
I also think, however, that the dynamics in Washington, the nature of the opposition and our experience of two years of negotiations dictate that we keep a close eye on how these values and themes are defined as we go forward. After all, the liberal Dick Durbin is saying that cutting social security is the moral thing to do. Let's just say that these rhetorical lines in the sand have a way of being conveniently re-interpreted when they hit the sausage making machine.
Still, this was a good first speech of the 2012 re-election campaign. I have no doubt that it will reassure most of the Democratic base and appeal to the independents who are skeptical of the Tea Party Republicans.