The speech, ripping apart the GOP budget proposal, was the strongest showing the president has had in a long time. But his plan's substance may not match his speech's fiery style.
Before President Obama presented his debt-reduction plan in a speech at George Washington University on Wednesday, he first offered a scathing critique of the Republican proposal, introduced last week by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan.
Ryan's plan aims to trim $4 trillion from the deficit over 10 years, mostly by cutting programs that serve the poor, slashing Medicare and reducing Medicaid to a block grant. Meanwhile, it lowers taxes for the country's wealthiest people. In his lambasting of the GOP proposal, Obama maintained that it basically gives up on America:
I believe it paints a vision of our future that is deeply pessimistic. It's a vision that says if our roads crumble and our bridges collapse, we can't afford to fix them. If there are bright young Americans who have the drive and the will but not the money to go to college, we can't afford to send them.
... It's a vision that says America can't afford to keep the promise we've made to care for our seniors. It says that 10 years from now, if you're a 65-year-old who's eligible for Medicare, you should have to pay nearly $6,400 more than you would today. It says instead of guaranteed health care, you will get a voucher. And if that voucher isn't worth enough to buy the insurance that's available in the open marketplace, well, tough luck -- you're on your own.
... It's a vision that 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, maybe 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 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.
It was the most morally outraged we've seen the president in a long time. He even brought up his notorious extension of Bush tax cuts for the wealthy last December, vowing, "I refuse to renew them again."
Discretionary spending cuts: Builds on the spending cuts in his 2012 budget, while continuing to invest in education, infrastructure, clean energy, and medical research
Security spending cuts: Makes deeper cuts to the Defense Department spending, exceeding those in his 2012 budget
Health care restructuring: Creates new cost-saving measures in the health care reform law, such as strengthening the role of the Independent Payment Advisory Board (an agency created under the legislation) to hold the cost growth in Medicare to GDP plus 0.5 percent, without charging seniors or privatizing the program
Tax reform: Simplifies the tax code by removing certain expenditures
So Obama offered a framework for cutting savings while also defending the social safety net instead of dismantling it at a time when Americans need it the most. "The fact is, their vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America," he said, taking another dig at Ryan's plan. "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."
Especially after a string of lackluster addresses from the president lately, I was impressed by this speech, which really seemed to stand up to the extreme measures of the Republican plan. That is, until I chatted with Vincent L. Hutchings, a political science professor at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research.
"With the earlier introduction of the Ryan budget, just about anything that President Obama introduces would seem less draconian," Hutchings told me, adding that Ryan made it easier for him by showing his deficit-reduction hand first. As for the fiery tone of the president's speech, Hutchings wasn't moved.
"He's embracing some of the proposals that have been put forth by the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction commission, which is not exactly a liberal cabal," he said. "Because Ryan is so far to the right, this president can then produce a set of recommendations which are not, by any stretch of the imagination, liberal, and then simultaneously proclaim himself to be a defender of the poor and middle class."
For example, Hutchings pointed out that most of Obama's savings come from spending cuts (something that many economists say we shouldn't be doing as the economy struggles to recover) instead of tax increases. When I brought up that Obama sounded determined to block further extensions of the Bush tax cuts, he just laughed.
"You'll have to forgive me for being a little cynical about this, but he has said that before," he said. "It's clear he's not going to go to the mat on this issue because he didn't go to the mat on it last year."
Tough crowd. My takeaway is that, while the plan relies on a great amount of domestic spending, it does so without rejecting the core responsibility of investment in the future. With the added challenge of a split Congress, the president doesn't have much choice but to walk down the middle of the road. During his speech, after all, he still called for a bipartisan deal -- but he also signaled that he intends to fight.
Cynthia Gordy is the Washington reporter for The Root.
Sensing that their message wasn't connecting with African Americans, Obama-administration officials attempt to answer: What are you doing for us?
It's been a rocky week for President Obama in general, but particularly concerning his connection to African Americans. After kicking off his re-election campaign with a well-received speech at the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network conference, the same event culminated with a televised shouting match between Sharpton and Dr. Cornel West over whether the president has credibly acknowledged black hardship or whether he is, according to West, a "black mascot" for wealthy bankers.
Federal budget negotiations managed to ward off a government shutdown, but the compromise ceded steep cuts to education and health programs (although many cuts targeted programs with unspent funds, or that were covered elsewhere) and revoked Washington, D.C.'s right to use its own money to help poor women access abortion services.
And while the Department of Health and Human Services unveiled a plan to reduce racial health disparities, Gallup released a poll showing that President Obama's approval rating among African Americans is down, from above 90 percent to 85 percent.
It's against this backdrop that the White House Office of Public Engagement launched a new webpage dedicated to the administration's policies and outreach that benefit the black community. The site, whitehouse.gov/africanamericans, actually started as a Black History Month project highlighting African-American members of the Obama administration, but it's been retooled as a year-round "What We're Doing" information clearinghouse with blog posts, fact sheets, video and photo galleries.
Features include a video of Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett explaining the administration's efforts to combat domestic HIV/AIDS (and sharing a personal story about losing her sister-in-law to the disease), a document breaking down how Obama's proposed 2012 budget (pdf) promotes job training, lending and college access in black communities, and a blog detailing a recent White House roundtable discussion with 60 black gay and lesbian student leaders. Some may dismiss the site as pandering -- but for a White House communications team that's notoriously wonky and long-winded, it's a way to help them make policy more personal and practical.
"We know that there's a continual need to get information out more," Michael Blake, White House director of African-American outreach, admitted to The Root. "We saw this as a perfect opportunity to gather everything into one central place, so that when someone asks, 'What is happening for the African-American community,' they don't have to go to multiple places. They can go to just one."
The low black voter turnout in November's crushing mid-term election was one big sign that their message wasn't connecting.
"A lot of people are frustrated, and they may not be aware of everything that's happening from this administration that is directly helping people," said Blake. "We're always saying that $1 billion [sent] out to black colleges over a 10-year span, for example, or the money that went to community health centers, is a huge deal."
Since the midterm election, the administration has stepped up its black outreach with an accelerated roster of events -- this week they'll hit the National Minority Supplier Development Council conference, as well as community events and conversations in Atlanta with Mayor Kasim Reed and HBCU students. The new African-American-focused Web portal is another extension of the effort, which has also dispatched representatives to Detroit, San Antonio and the National Urban League conference this year.
"We are literally crisscrossing the country to continue engaging with people on the ground," said Blake, who isn't daunted by constant, sometimes angry charges that the White House isn't doing enough. "I love the challenge of my job because it forces us to not be complacent, and it forces us to be aggressive about making it a two-way conversation."
In a last-minute deal on the 2011 federal budget, Planned Parenthood funding is safe, overall spending is drastically reduced -- and the government is still running.
At literally the 11th hour, Democrats and Republicans reached a tentative deal on this year’s budget, averting a government shutdown. The agreement came despite a day largely marked by Republicans’ refusal to drop their demands to ban funding for Planned Parenthood (which represents less than 1 percent of federal spending, none of which goes to abortion services) and Democrats’ refusal to give in.
Ultimately, Democrats were able to strip the Republican riders and keep federal funding for Planned Parenthood in the final compromise. Republicans got far deeper spending cuts out of Dems—$39 billion for the rest of the fiscal year, and a 7-day continuing resolution to put the substance of the deal in legislative form.
In a speech from the White House Blue Room, despite the drastic spending cuts, President Obama put a positive spin on the budget deal. Here’s the transcript:
"Good evening. Behind me, through the window, you can see the Washington Monument, visited each year by hundreds of thousands from around the world. The people who travel here come to learn about our history and to be inspired by the example of our democracy -- a place where citizens of different backgrounds and beliefs can still come together as one nation.
Tomorrow, I’m pleased to announce that the Washington Monument, as well as the entire federal government, will be open for business. And that's because today Americans of different beliefs came together again.
In the final hours before our government would have been forced to shut down, leaders in both parties reached an agreement that will allow our small businesses to get the loans they need, our families to get the mortgages they applied for, and hundreds of thousands of Americans to show up at work and take home their paychecks on time, including our brave men and women in uniform.
This agreement between Democrats and Republicans, on behalf of all Americans, is on a budget that invests in our future while making the largest annual spending cut in our history. Like any worthwhile compromise, both sides had to make tough decisions and give ground on issues that were important to them. And I certainly did that.
Some of the cuts we agreed to will be painful. Programs people rely on will be cut back. Needed infrastructure projects will be delayed. And I would not have made these cuts in better circumstances.
But beginning to live within our means is the only way to protect those investments that will help America compete for new jobs -- investments in our kids’ education and student loans; in clean energy and life-saving medical research. We protected the investments we need to win the future.
At the same time, we also made sure that at the end of the day, this was a debate about spending cuts, not social issues like women’s health and the protection of our air and water. These are important issues that deserve discussion, just not during a debate about our budget.
I want to thank Speaker Boehner and Senator Reid for their leadership and their dedication during this process. A few months ago, I was able to sign a tax cut for American families because both parties worked through their differences and found common ground. Now the same cooperation will make possible the biggest annual spending cut in history, and it’s my sincere hope that we can continue to come together as we face the many difficult challenges that lie ahead, from creating jobs and growing our economy to educating our children and reducing our deficit. That's what the American people expect us to do. That's why they sent us here.
A few days ago, I received a letter from a mother in Longmont, Colorado. Over the year, her son’s eighth grade class saved up money and worked on projects so that next week they could take a class trip to Washington, D.C. They even have an appointment to lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The mother wrote that for the last few days the kids in her son’s class had been worried and upset that they might have to cancel their trip because of a shutdown. She asked those of us in Washington to get past our petty grievances and make things right. And she said, “Remember, the future of this country is not for us. It’s for our children.”
Today we acted on behalf of our children’s future. And next week, when 50 eighth graders from Colorado arrive in our nation’s capital, I hope they get a chance to look up at the Washington Monument and feel the sense of pride and possibility that defines America -- a land of many that has always found a way to move forward as one."
A new government plan says that racial health problems involve more than access to doctors' offices -- the solutions start with us.
I recently wrote a piece on what the Affordable Care Act does about racial and ethnic health disparities, a long-standing problem that had never been addressed by federal legislation before the law's passage. The law takes important steps to improve health care access and quality for low-income communities of color, but its efforts to confront unequal neighborhood conditions that drive poor health in the first place (such as environmental pollution and lack of supermarkets) aren’t up to snuff.
What a difference a few days makes. Almost as if on cue, on Friday the Department of Health and Human Services released two strategic plans with the specific goal of reducing health disparities. The HHS Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities largely focuses on implementing portions of the Affordable Care Act—such as improving data collection on health inequities, establishing cultural competency educations for health workers and expanding community health centers. The National Stakeholder Strategy for Achieving Health Equity, however, targets what’s going on in local communities.
“A lot of health and health care is not just about the doctor,” Garth N. Graham, HHS Deputy Assistant Secretary for Minority Health, told The Root about the Stakeholder Strategy. The plan was created with input from grassroots organizations, local businesses and academic institutions across the country – all which stressed that it does little good to preach about proper diet and exercise without understanding the neighborhood context. “It’s also about how people interact with other components of daily life,” he said.
With that premise in mind, the hefty, 228-page Stakeholder Strategy provides a roadmap for how local communities can partner with local businesses and local government to create community solutions, buoyed by investment from various federal agencies. Whether the challenge involves food deserts, water pollution, mold-infested housing, or lack of parks and other recreational facilities, the document offers ideas to solve them.
“We don’t want to make this seem like eliminating health disparities is entirely a federal effort,” said Graham. “What you need is strong federal commitment and investment; then other things can occur from there on the community level.”
Both the HHS Action Plan and the National Stakeholder Strategy go into effect immediately, using existing department funds for now. Despite a Republican-controlled House of Representatives which is likely to oppose the initiatives in the next fiscal year, HHS remains optimistic about the leadership from various supporters in Congress, such as Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), both of whom spoke at a Washington press conference announcing the plans.
Brian Smedley, vice president for the Health Policy Institute at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, who also spoke at the presser, noted the economic impact associated with health disparities. According to a Joint Center study (pdf), between 2003 and 2006 health care inequities cost Americans $1.24 trillion.
On a local level, however, I wondered if the political will to take this on was really there. It’s not like this is a new problem – low-income community health challenges have persisted since…forever. Graham is considerably more optimistic.
“You can’t assume that because a situation is bad, it will always be bad,” he said. “These ideas came from people at the local level, so this is about giving them a forum. People can now display to their local legislatures, state health departments and other organizations, what a concrete strategy looks like. We’re connecting that with a national effort, so communities know they’re also part of something even bigger.”
By midnight on Friday we'll know whether lawmakers strike a deal on the 2011 budget or shut down the government. The outlook's not good.
We’re now hours, not days, away from finding out if Democrat and Republican lawmakers can cut a deal on the 2011 budget and, thus, whether the government will keep running. A worst-case-scenario government shutdown would have broad consequences — 800,000 federal workers could be furloughed, bringing a screeching halt to home and small business loans, paper-filed tax refunds, and Saturday’s National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade here in Washington D.C. The nation’s military forces would continue working, but without pay.
“I remain confident that if we're serious about getting something done we should be able to complete a deal and get it passed and avert a shutdown,” President Obama said Wednesday night, after a meeting with Senate majority leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner to try and find a resolution. “We're going to keep on pounding away at this thing because I'm absolutely convinced that we can get this done.”
Can they? Reid doesn’t share the president’s hopeful outlook. “The numbers are basically there, but I’m not nearly as optimistic as I was 11 hours ago,” he said on the Senate floor Thursday morning, explaining the deadlock between Senate and House Republicans over funding for Planned Parenthood and the regulation authority of the Environmental Protection Agency. “The only thing holding up an agreement is ideology.”
There’s been much finger-pointing at Republicans for hinging a shutdown on policy demands over things like Planned Parenthood and NPR, which contribute a miniscule amount to the budget, but let’s not forget that if Democrats had actually passed a budget last year, when they had a majority in both houses, we wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place. Meanwhile, Obama’s moderate, non-confrontational leadership style hasn’t inspired a sense of urgency all this time.
In the latest move, House Republicans voted to keep the government open for another week, along with another $12 million in cuts, but Obama promised to veto the measure.
My sense is that a lot of this is a political kabuki dance and, behind closed doors they’ll reach a deal shortly before midnight on Friday. At worst, predicts Michael Fauntroy, an associate professor of public policy at George Mason University, there may be a symbolic shutdown for a couple of days where both sides get to claim some measure of victory.
“The Republicans will get to claim that they forced the president to agree to their cuts, while the Democrats will be able to say that they protected Planned Parenthood and stood up for the issues they felt most strongly about,” Fauntroy told The Root. Whatever the deal looks like in the end, though, nobody’s going to love it.
“The Republicans are going to have a particularly difficult problem because Speaker Boehner has a significant portion of his party that is unwilling to compromise,” said Fauntroy, chalking it up to the inexperience of some of Congress’ new Tea Party-supported members. “A lot of these House Republican freshmen are very inexperienced in the legislative process. Speaker Boehner’s going to be forced, if he wants to get a deal done, to do something that’s going to anger many of them, even though he probably knows it’s the right thing to do.”
The budget compromise stands to anger Democratic voters too, especially if Obama and Democratic leadership capitulate on Planned Parenthood funding and EPA authority. “If they do that, they’re going to have real problems,” said Fauntroy, alluding to a lefty base that's already disappointed by Obama’s tendency to cave. “The president’s re-election could be hanging on this. There are just so many times that you can diss your base and get away with it.”
Well, if a deal is struck we’ll see the verdict very soon. What’s your prediction?
This article has been updated to reflect that the government shutdown could take place on Friday, April 8.