Friday, September 19, 2014
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President Rope-a-Dope

President Obama's budget talk was the best policy speech of his 27 months in office -- does this mean that he actually had a strategy all along?

President Rope-a-Dope

Much as Muhammad Ali did to George Foreman in 1974's infamous "Rumble in the Jungle" (pictured above...duh). President Obama finally bounced off the political ropes today and punched back on taxes, spending, and what kind of country America wants to be going forward. Like most people with a largely liberal mindset, I've been highly critical of the president recently -- for lack of fight on wide range of issues from short-term spending to civilian trials for the 9/11 terrorists, and so I was predisposed not to like what Obama was going to say on long-term debt reduction.

I was wrong. Instead, I thought he delivered one of the two best speeches since he took office (and the other, his Tucson eulogy, is in a completely different category) because a) he articulated a vision of the role that government can play in making a nation better for all its citizens, and not just the powerful few, and b) he drew a line in the sand on things that really matter, including millionaires and billionaires paying their fair share and against bad ideas that would destroy social programs like Medicare while purporting to save them. 

What's more, and I have no inside information so I could be dead wrrong on this, I thought I actually saw a method to some of the seeming political madness coming from the Obama White House in recent days, that there may have been some political shrewdness in what certainly looked initially like appalling giveaways to the GOP on the 2011 budget, and passivity on the broader debate over debt.

In other words, I wonder if Obama played a clever political version of the rope-a-dope boxing strategyemployed by Ali, which was to tire out the younger Foreman by absorbing his blows until Foreman, the reigning champ, was too tired to defend himself. Just as Ali rightly guessed that Foreman would overpunch, Obama may have correctly figured that GOP and its boy wonder Rep. Paul Ryan would overreach with a plan that was so fundamentally unfair, and so skewed toward rich people and against seniors, the working class and the poor, that it would be easy to knock down...if not out for the count, not yet.

Let's look at the strategy, starting with the 2011 budget battle that nearly resulted in a government shutdown last Friday night. It certainly looked like Obama and the Democrats were had in that deal by giving up $39 billion in short term cuts when it had seemed like House Speaker John Boehner had been willing to settle for just $33 billion. But as the details leaked out, it appeared that the cuts in the final deal were relatively inconsequential, even as Obama gained some political credit a) for his role in averting an unpopular shutdown and b) establishing some cred with moderate voters (who aren't going to sweat the details) as a Democrat willing to make spending cuts. Now, increasingly, it's the right-wing pundits -- joined by presidential hopefuls like Tim Pawlenty -- who say that they were the ones who got duped in the deal. You know what?...they're probably right, for once. (Note: To those angry that the cuts include dollars that might never have been spent anyway, I call that common sense. When you have to balance your household budget, do you drop the cable channels you don't watch anyway, or do you stop buying food?)

Now, on the long-term spending that Obama addressed in his speech today, it clearly was wise to let the Republicans go first. Undoubtedly, the path that the president proposed is the common sense way to balance the budget: By ending the historically over-the-top tax cuts for the rich and addressing related loopholes, by looking for cuts in our bloated and inefficient defense budget, and in seeking to reform Medicare by reducing the actual health care costs rather than just shifting the bill to the poor and the elderly and making a bunch of insurance CEOs even richer (at Ryan's low. low tax rate, of course.) It sounds good on paper -- but it sounds even better when you compare it to the unseriousness of the Paul Ryan proposal, which isn't even really a debt reduction proposal as much as yet another cost-shifting scheme away from the rich and onto the backs of the middle class.

That contrast is what really gave Obama's speech its energy. The Ryan plan, Obama said...

...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.

Go to China and you'll see businesses opening research labs and solar facilities. South Korean children are outpacing our kids in math and science. They're scrambling to figure out how they put more money into education. Brazil is investing billions in new infrastructure and can run half their cars not on high-priced gasoline, but on biofuels. And yet, we are presented with a vision that says the American people, the United States of America -– the greatest nation on Earth -– can't afford any of this.

From Day One of Obama's presidency, I always felt -- as I argued in this poorly headlined op-ed from the L.A. Times in January 2009-- that a roadmap to success for the 44th president would be to put forward a relentlessly upbeat vision for America, just as Ronald Reagan successfully did in the 1980s, but to do so with progressive policies that would actually make the nation better, as opposed to a "shining city on a hill" that dismantled solar energy and started this whole trend of unsoaking the rich. It only took 27 months, but we finally saw that today.

Was Obama's speech perfect? Of course not. For one thing, and I guess this is relatively minor, I cringed when he used that phrase "winning the future" (and I saw that Josh Marshall and Paul Krugman reacted similarly) -- that expresssion needs to go and probably so does the staffer who came up with it. More importantly, now that Obama has drawn some new lines in the sand, let's see if he can actually keep these. Past results are not encouraging, since he certainly left the impression in 2008 that he would never extend the tax cuts for the rich, only to do exactly that, albeit temporarily.

But, hey, Paul Krugman, the Life Cereal Mikey of the progressive movement ("he won't like it...he hates everything!") gave a positive if somewhat qualfied (of course) thumbs up to the speech, as did Digby of "What Digby Said" fame, so who is a C-list-er like myself to argue with them? At least we know Obama can take a punch and bounce off the ropes. But he still hasn't knocked anyone down... yet.

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Will Bunch
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