How Obama’s State of the Union reframed our economic debate.
“Deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan.” With those eight words in his State of the Union address, Barack Obama sought to fundamentally refocus the debate over America’s economic future.
This is, as Joe Biden might say, a Big Financial Deal. For nearly all of President Obama’s tenure, Washington has been obsessed with deficits. All the best people—the kind of folks who call Washington “this town” and use sentences that begin, “And so I told the undersecretary”—have been in ironclad agreement that the deficit and the debt constitute the biggest problems facing our country. Now Obama, who went to the same fancy schools as the best people, has shown the audacity to put deficit mania in its place. The slow decline and possible death of the American middle class, the president said, that is the true crisis.
What a difference an election makes. Can you imagine Mitt Romney speaking to that joint session of Congress? The man who famously declared that the majority of American voters were just looking for “gifts” like education and health care is not likely to have turned the nation’s attention to the plight of the hard-pressed middle class.
Fear not, deficit hawks, Obama has not adopted the tone of the Republicans who ran up the red ink. He is no Ronald Reagan, who once told reporters not to worry about the deficit because “it’s big enough to take care of itself.” Nor is he a Dick Cheney, who sneered at Treasury Secretary (and deficit hawk) Paul O’Neill, “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.” Nor, thank goodness, is he a George W. Bush, who inherited an expanding surplus and turned it into an exploding deficit by cutting taxes, especially for the rich, waging two wars on a credit card, and creating a massive, new prescription-drug entitlement for seniors with no tax to pay for it. As someone who helped President Clinton balance the budget and build a surplus, I get furious when Republicans whine about deficits. Have they no shame?