Obama Fires Back in Debt Speech


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 luckyou'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."

The president's plan, which takes some cues from his fiscal commission's Simpson-Bowles proposal (pdf), aims for $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 12 years through:

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.