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by Hendrik Hertzberg, April 13, 2011 
One of the mysteries of the Obama Presidency has been Obama’s inability—or disinclination, I’m not sure which—to give sustained emotional sustenance to a certain slice of his supporters. I don’t mean the “Democratic base,” especially the institutional “interest group” base. And I don’t mean the disillusioned left, which is easily, almost perpetually disillusioned because it has such an ample supply of illusions. (A lot of lefties, notwithstanding their scorn for “the system,” seem to have an implicit naive faith in the workability of the mechanisms of American governance. Hence their readiness to blame the disappointments of the Administration’s first two years mainly on Obama’s alleged moral or character failings—cowardice, spinelessness, insincerity, duplicity, what have you.) Mainly, I guess, the slice I’m talking about is of people like me: liberals who continue to respect and admire Obama; who fully appreciate the disaster he inherited and the horrendous difficulty of enacting a coherent agenda even when your own party “controls” both Houses of Congress; who think his substantive record is pretty good under the circumstances; who dislike some of the distasteful compromises he has made but aren’t sure we wouldn’t have done the same in his shoes (etc.—you get the idea); but who are puzzled that our eloquent, writerly President seems to have done so little to educate the public about his own vision and to contrast it with that of the Republican right—which is to say, the Republicans.
I don’t know how many people watched Obama’s speech today—early afternoon isn’t prime time—but those who did, and who share my general outlook, got a dose of the emotional (and intellectual) nourishment we’ve been craving. It was a strong speech, a good deal stronger than I had expected. (And feared: I hate to admit it, I know it’s silly, but I was a little worried we might get something uncomfortably akin to “We must reject both extremes, those who say we shouldn’t help the old and the sick and those who say we should.”)
Obama spoke powerful words, and spoke them with real feeling. As we all know by now, our President doesn’t “do” anger. Today, though, he did sternness; he did dignified exasperation; best of all, he did argument.
Georgetown University isn’t a hearth, but today’s speech had some of the explanatory, narrative qualities of F.D.R.’s fireside chats. Obama began with a historical pageant, the story of how a nation of “rugged individualists” who nonetheless share “a belief that we are all connected” lifted itself to greatness via Whiggish public investments and social insurance. (He didn’t actually mention Whigs, obviously, but he did endorse the dictum of Lincoln, a onetime Whig stalwart, that “through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves”.)
Warming up, Obama outlined the moral basis of progressive taxation. Without rancor, but without mercy, he explained how the big Clinton surpluses became the gigantic Bush deficits (though the only Bush he mentioned by name was the first one, whom he praised). He explained why a burst of stimulative borrowing was necessary to stave off a second Great Depression. He gave a topography of the federal budget, noting how little of it (twelve per cent) goes to almost everything most people think of as “government.” And he unpacked Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget and deficit plan—the one the House Republicans seem to have decided fits them as snugly as a suicide vest—as a “deeply pessimistic” vision of “a fundamentally different America.”
A sample (emphases mine, to give a hint of the incredulity and disgust in Obama’s voice):
Worst of all, this is a vision that says even though America can’t afford to invest in education or clean energy; even though we can’t afford to care for seniors and poor children, we can somehow afford more than a trillion dollars in new tax breaks for the wealthy. Think about it. In the last decade, the average income of the bottom ninety per cent of all working Americans actually declined. The top one per cent saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. And that’s who needs to pay less taxes? They want to give people like me a two-hundred-thousand-dollar tax cut that’s paid for by asking thirty-three seniors to each pay six thousand dollars more in health costs? That’s not right, and it’s not going to happen as long as I’m President.
The fact is, their vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America. As Ronald Reagan’s own budget director said, there’s nothing “serious” or “courageous” about this plan.
Deft move, that last line—summoning the ghost of Reagan past to say boo to the Republicans and deliver a well-deserved rebuke to the many media chin-pullers, some of whom should have known better, who initially rushed to laud Ryan for his supposed bravery and grown-upness.
By the time the President got to his own four-step proposal, which calls for higher taxes on the rich (euphemized as lowering “spending through the tax code”) the Republican alternative was a smoking ruin. Given the position his own reluctance, until now, to stake out a clear ideological divide had left him in, Obama succeeded in constructing a reasonably solid fortification for the fiscal battles to come. Even Paul Krugman was pleased. Me, too.
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