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Morning Jay: Obama's Speech Was Meant to Reassure the Left

6:00 AM, Apr 15, 2011 • By JAY COST
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Lately, I’ve been staying up late at night because I’m just too stressed over the state of the union. Unable to sleep, I often find myself toggling between scores of Excel spreadsheets, crunching all sorts of numbers to get my mind around the gaping budget deficit that is threatening the country. It isn’t pretty, as we all know, and unfortunately my computations have only made me feel worse.

For instance, take the president’s FY 2012 budget. CBO’s analysis of it indicates that it will add about 8.8 trillion in inflation-adjusted dollars to the deficit by 2021. That’s a lot. But it could be a lot more. CBO projects that real economic growth over the next decade will average 2.9 percent per year. If, however, real growth over the next decade mimics what we saw in the last 10 years (1.7 percent on average), my back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests we’d be talking about at least an $11.3 trillion inflation-adjusted deficit. That’s an additional $2.5 trillion just over an assumption about the economy.

Late at night, while deriving these sorts of utterly depressing numbers, I often wonder to myself, is President Obama by any chance up tonight as well, worrying about the deficit and the feasibility of his own plan?

On Wednesday, I got my answer: No, he’s fast asleep.

Not only was Obama’s speech on Wednesday political, it was completely rote, by-the-book Obama politics. He couldn’t even bring out an interesting twist to his stock partisan speech. Here’s how it always goes, with Wednesday being no exception:

I. Introduction of some grand narrative of American history.

II. Introduction of the policy problem, making clear that Obama had nothing to do with it.

III. Argument that the proposal of Obama’s opponents is inconsistent with that grand narrative.

IV. Argument that Obama’s proposal is consistent with that grand narrative.

V. Conclusion that Obama’s proposal is the only “American” solution to the policy problem.

So, the only interesting question to me is: If this was a political speech, what was its purpose?

If we look at the “proposals” to curb the deficit in this speech, we see three big ones:

1. Tax increases.

2. Military spending cuts.

3. Giving the unelected Independent Payment Advisory Board even more power to make cuts to Medicare.

None of these proposals will appeal to independent voters in the center. Not a single one. In fact, Bill Clinton enacted deficit reduction in the early 1990s by pushing the first two items, and they contributed to the Democratic debacle in 1994.

So, if it wasn't to win over the center, what was the political point? Check out how the New York Times gushed over the speech:

The man America elected president has re-emerged.

For months, the original President Obama had disappeared behind mushy compromises and dimly seen principles. But on Wednesday, he used his budget speech to clearly distance himself from Republican plans to heap tax benefits on the rich while casting adrift the nation’s poor, elderly and unemployed. Instead of adapting the themes of the right to his own uses, he set out a very different vision of an America that keeps its promises to the weak and asks for sacrifice from the strong.

The deficit-reduction plan he unveiled did not always live up to that vision and should have been less fixated on spending cuts at the expense of tax increases. It may give up too much as an opening position. But at least it was a reasonable basis for a conversation and is far better than its most prominent competitors. That is because it is grounded in themes of generosity and responsibility that, until recently, had been shared by leaders of both parties.

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