It was very late when the President appeared before cameras a week ago Friday and croaked out something about how great it was that people who wanted to visit national monuments would be able to do so the following day. He told us:
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
The next day, when he bounded up the stairs at the Washington Monument to underscore how great it was that tourists did not have their trip to the capitol disturbed, and to revel in what was accomplished, it was easy to imagine why the President might want to steer clear of the relatively nearby memorial to his audacious predecessor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
President Roosevelt died sixty-six years ago this very week. In those waning hours of a titanic struggle over a “budget” for a fiscal year well over half over, a president elected on a platform of “change” from eight years of a Republican presidency dedicated to the destruction of everything Roosevelt in favor of the oligarchs and robber barons who famously hated FDR when he took them on in 1933, announced that their goal was his goal. All agreed, he appeared to say, that the biggest problem facing the nation at large, a country again laid low by crippling unemployment and a recession that mathematical calculations may claim to be over but experience does not, was a federal budget deficit. The protections against the depredation that almost destroyed the country by 1933 would have to take a back seat to the cause of balancing the federal budget.
The third president elected since Richard Nixon was able to use the antipathy toward Democrats that resulted from the Vietnam War and the tumultuous events of 1968 to sneak into a presidency he proceeded to disgrace, had sold out his party, just as the two others had. The struggles—the wars between two distinct views of what government is about—were over, the two others had tried to tell us.
We have learned that “more” is not necessarily “better,” that even our great Nation has its recognized limits, and that we can neither answer all questions nor solve all problems.
At a breakfast meeting, Carter berated the Congressional Democratic leadership for adding $61 billion in new programs to his budget. “The Democratic Party needs to remove the stigma of unjustified spending,” he said.
“Mr. President,” Tip O’Neill reminded Carter, “the Democrats are the champions of the poor and the indigent.”
The next president elected by Democrats made the word triangulate a famous one, and told us that the“era of big government is over.” Adopting the Republicans mantra worked well for that president. They impeached him.
And now it was happening again. The cries of pain were heartfelt and meaningful. We had been abandoned a again by a president who thought he could rise above it all, or could find “common ground” with people who believed his entire presidency to be illegitimate. As Rachel Maddow’s perfect metaphor explained, if you do whatever the creature says it wants by whining, the creature will always get what it wants by whining.
There was no mistaking the strategy. David Plouffe, who takes credit for the President’s election, travlled the Sunday morning talk show circuit and the message was clear and succinct:
listen, the president came together with Republicans and Democrats on behalf of the country in December, led an effort to cut taxes , and now we’ve come together to cut spending
The Republican answer to everything is to cut taxes, and to cut spending. If people get hurt, that’s the way it is, FDR be damned (long time ago, different era, he’s dead, etc. etc.) And the president elected as the nominee of the Democratic Party agrees.
And then there was The Speech:
From our first days as a nation, we have put our faith in free markets and free enterprise as the engine of America’s wealth and prosperity. More than citizens of any other country, we are rugged individualists, a self-reliant people with a healthy skepticism of too much government.
But there’s always been another thread running through our history -– a belief that we’re all connected, and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation. We believe, in the words of our first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, that through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves.
Part of this American belief that we’re all connected also expresses itself in a conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security and dignity. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff may strike any one of us. “There but for the grace of God go I,” we say to ourselves. And so we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment insurance, which protects us against unexpected job loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, those with disabilities. We’re a better country because of these commitments. I’ll go further. We would not be a great country without those commitments.
As a country that values fairness, wealthier individuals have traditionally borne a greater share of this burden than the middle class or those less fortunate. Everybody pays, but the wealthier have borne a little more. This is not because we begrudge those who’ve done well -– we rightly celebrate their success. Instead, it’s a basic reflection of our belief that those who’ve benefited most from our way of life can afford to give back a little bit more. Moreover, this belief hasn’t hindered the success of those at the top of the income scale. They continue to do better and better with each passing year.
In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90 percent of all working Americans actually declined. Meanwhile, the top 1 percent saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. That’s who needs to pay less taxes?
They want to give people like me a $200,000 tax cut that’s paid for by asking 33 seniors each to pay $6,000 more in health costs. That’s not right. And it’s not going to happen as long as I’m President. (Applause.)
This vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America. Ronald Reagan’s own budget director said, there’s nothing “serious” or “courageous” about this plan. There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And I don’t think there’s anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill. That’s not a vision of the America I know.
The America I know is generous and compassionate. It’s a land of opportunity and optimism. Yes, we take responsibility for ourselves, but we also take responsibility for each other; for the country we want and the future that we share
If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. This I propose to offer, pledging that the larger purposes will bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife.
All right. That last one was from President Roosevelt, not President Obama but that is the point: Things are not so different. The arguments are the same ones, by roughly the same people (not the exact same people, of course, but people with the same outlook.)
In fact, as the great Rachel pointed out (as, ahem, posts under this name have said over a number of years), not a lot has changed in the core divisions within this nation since our founding and through he civil war:
As the equally sensational Jon Stewart observed, the same people who habitually suggest that President Obama is some sort of exotic semi- or actual foreigner took great offense at his calling them out.
To Joe Scarborough the offense was that the President was suggesting that his opponents were un-American something he said, over and over, would not be tolerated if a Republican President said it (as, for instance, when President Bush repeatedly claimed when, though Democrats largely gave him exactly what we wanted in the run up to the war in Iraq, he campaigned in 2002 and 2004 as if a vote for Democrats was a vote for surrender).
His inane claim about who gets away with what aside, Congressman Scarborough (retired) missed the President’s point, or at least, pretended he did. It was not that one could not endorse a Republican point of view and be a good American. It was that the Republican plan is based on a different view of this country than many others have.
The issue, the President said, requires that we
choose a vision of the America we want to see five years, 10 years, 20 years down the road….[T]he way th[e Republican] plan achieves [its] goals would lead to a fundamentally different America than the one we’ve known certainly in my lifetime. In fact, I think it would be fundamentally different than what we’ve known throughout our history…
The America I know is generous and compassionate. It’s a land of opportunity and optimism. Yes, we take responsibility for ourselves, but we also take responsibility for each other; for the country we want and the future that we share. We’re a nation that built a railroad across a continent and brought light to communities shrouded in darkness. We sent a generation to college on the GI Bill and we saved millions of seniors from poverty with Social Security and Medicare. We have led the world in scientific research and technological breakthroughs that have transformed millions of lives. That’s who we are. This is the America that I know. 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.
Yes, these are just words, but they are powerful ones. They draw the line in the sand so many have wanted to see. And, yes, while the President’s track record as a negotiator is nothing to rely on (readDavid Remnick’s book for a portrait of a man who craves agreement), his speech this week carries with it the same type of promise that the first President Bush made with his famous “no new taxes” speech at the 1988 Republican Convention. To renege on the no Bush tax cuts extension for the wealthy pledge would doom this President just as the unfulfilled Bush promise cost that President his re-election.
We are not united states today, any more than ever we were. Saying that we are does not make it so, as Rachel has explained over and over and our era’s Civil War documentarian, Ken Burns, has also suggested.
given the hysterical Republican reaction, it doesn’t look likely that we’ll see negotiations trying to narrow the difference. That’s a good thing because Mr. Obama’s plan already relies more on spending cuts than it should, and moving it significantly in the G.O.P.’s direction would produce something unworkable and unacceptable.
What happened over the past two weeks, then, was more about staking out positions than about enacting policies. On one side you had a combination of mean-spiritedness and fantasy; on the other you had a reaffirmation of American compassion and community, coupled with fairly realistic numbers. Which would you choose?
The two visions of our future are quite on display now. There is, as Dr. Krugman said, no clear middle ground, so now is the time to decide which one should prevail.