Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Land of Light or Darkness?...

 **UPDATE 4/15** The House of Representatives has passed Rep. Paul Ryan's bill that would end Medicare as we know it.  The vote was almost entirely on party lines.  No Democrats voted for it and they were joined by four Republicans.  The budget resolution is not expected to pass the Senate.

Obama at GWU (White House)
Yesterday President Barack Obama answered the budget proposal put forward by the House Republican leadership not only with his own prescription to the nation’s fiscal problems, but also a firm defense of progressive and mainstream American values.  The speech, at the George Washington University was sedate, but nevertheless powerful and has been hailed by many, if not all of the Washington punditocracy and others as "serious" perhaps more so than the GOP budget

That Republican budget was the baby of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan.  For those who follow politics, Ryan’s name is not particularly new.  However, as the threat and then reality of a Republican House came to pass, Ryan’s name became a household name.  Then last week, the boyish, handsome and physically fit (all other media outlets’ descriptions) congressman laid out his party’s answer to the nation’s debt and deficit.  The future, to Ryan, looks bleak both with and without his plan.

His party’s budget, which he wrote, would privatize Medicare and make it into a voucher system.  The government would buy private insurance for future seniors, however it would be weighted to limit the amount the government would actually pay.  The result would transfer the obligation to seniors.  Domestic discretionary spending aside from defense would be substantially cut.  Medicaid would be transformed into a block grant system, which, in this case, would pass nearly all cost increases to states especially in recession.  More likely, it would end Medicaid’s ability to cover those who need it and only cover those a state can or is willing to afford.

Cong. Ryan (wikipedia)
The media’s initial reaction mirrored that of a high school hallway lined with girls watching the captain of the football team walk by.  Indeed at times, it seemed like some in the media may have just as easily expressed their admiration to Ryan in a dark closet after prom.  By week’s end, although some were still calling Ryan’s budget bold and serious, many commentators had at least begun to walk back their comments or find alibis for those crucial drunken moments in the dark.  Among the plan’s many concerns were its numbers, which had been taken from the conservative Heritage Foundation (and later removed from that group’s website) that predicted unrealistically low unemployment.  Paul Krugman, in analogies less suggestive, called the promises in Ryan’s plan “unicorns” i.e. fantasies.

However, President Obama firmly rebutted the austerity and promises of poverty in the GOP budget.  Never mentioning the Wisconsin Republican by name (who was in attendance at the speech), Obama laid out a case for preserving and strengthening our social contract while working within our fiscal means.  Among other things, he called for eliminating the Bush tax cuts on the rich, easing out tax expenditures for both individuals and corporations, freezing domestic spending and rolling back our bloated defense budget.

Fiscal Cmn. at the White House (White House)
Aside from the mechanics of the four-point plan, which were not overly detailed, Obama made the case for Medicare and Social Security quoting that old axiom “There but for the Grace of God, Go I.”  Obama underscored the individuality that defines our country, but he also described it as one side of a coin.  The other side emphasizes our national generosity and community.  At the same time he pivoted to note that Ryan's reductions in spending in education, clean energy, transportation and the social safety net would pay for a $1 trillion in addition tax cuts for wealthy (oh, yeah that’s in Ryan’s budget, too).  Obama went further calling Ryan’s budget, if not by name, neither “courageous” nor “serious” saying there is not “anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill.”

“The American I know is generous and compassionate” and “a land of opportunity and optimism,” the president said.  He hit all the right chords to reassure the left, while appealing to the center.  He called out the Republican budget for being unrealistic at best and cruel at worst.  Further he avoided getting bogged down in the policy theories the Republicans spew about how markets can magically solve any problem including healthcare.

Even as he said these things, though, Obama had one more ace up his sleeve.  He included triggers in his proposal that would force spending cuts and revenue increases if agreement could not be found between Congress and the White House.

Obama drew his single applause when he spelled out in no uncertain terms that the Republican budget would save the average wealthy American--who have prospered mightily in comparison to everybody else--as much as it would cost 33 seniors to pay for their healthcare.  Although the speech’s written text, as Rachel Maddow noted in her show yesterday, had the feeling of a campaign stop.  Yet the President’s tone and demeanor were calm.  His speech was meant to reassure his base even as he appealed to a far broader spectrum of Americans.  Indeed he even hit his base a little, however, it was far more of a love tap rather than a sucker punch the left often gets from Democrats.

Lyndon Johnson Signs Medicare Law (Wikipedia)
In the aftermath, Obama drew a great deal of praise for laying down a realistic groundwork to solve the nation’s fiscal crisis.  Indeed most fretting around centrist and liberal circles was that Obama’s proposal would be an opening bid set against the GOP plan.  However, with unequivocal statements on Medicare and the Bush tax cuts, at least it is unlikely Obama would let anything close to Ryan’s plan be made law.

Ryan took the ordeal personally whining in media appearance after media appearance that the president had “poisoned the well.”  To quote a caption on DailyKos, the speech made Ryan “very, very sad.”  For a consummate Washington insider like Ryan, however, the reaction seemed petty.

We will have more about Ryan in the future, but it is important to know something about him.  Ryan’s political philosophy is actually one that abhors any governmental efforts to address social issues.  He has shown  contempt for unemployment benefits and like many other Republicans supports the “starve the beast” plan.  That theory calls for reducing government revenues to unsustainable levels in order to force reductions in spending, particularly in the safety net.  His budget is proof positive of this and given that it would not begin to pay off the debt for decades, it would only be a matter of time that those vouchers would have to go, too, for want of funding.

Perhaps why Ryan took the whole thing so personally was because it exposed his policies for what they are, while the media realized they had been taken advantage of.  They have repaid the favor by refusing to call his program anything but privatization or vouchers.

Obama noted how our commitment to each other ensures “some basic measure of security and dignity,” for all of us.  Just as important, he reminded us that that our nation is made great because of our individuality and our common goal for a better nation for all our citizens.  There are some concerns about where this will lead when it is on the budget table and perhaps the president offered too much in spending cuts.  Even so, it was a good first step for a president and a nation.

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