Obama down the middle

    Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech should finally obliterate the right-wing canard about his purported devotion to “socialism.” No true socialist has ever talked like this:Let us “lower the corporate tax rate for the first time in 25 years.”And this:”We are living with a legacy of deficit-spending that began almost a decade ago…We have to confront the fact that our government spends more than it takes in. That is not sustainable. Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same. So tonight, I am proposing that starting this year, we freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years. This would reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade, and will bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president.”And this:”The only way to tackle our deficit is to cut excessive spending wherever we find it – in domestic spending, defense spending, health care spending, and spending through tax breaks and loopholes.”And this:”You see, we know what’s possible for our children when reform isn’t just a top-down (government) mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals, school boards and communities.”And this:”We should give (the citizenry) a government that’s more competent and efficient. We cannot win the future with a government of the past. We live and do business in the information age, but the last major reorganization of the government happened in the age of black and white TV. There are twelve different agencies that deal with exports. There are at least five different entities that deal with housing policy. Then there’s my favorite example: the Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in when they’re in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.”That latter passage was straight from the folksy Ronald Reagan playbook. Indeed, when Obama urged Americans to reach for “that better place beyond the horizon,” I heard echoes of Reagan’s “shining city on the hill.” Time and again, Republican lawmakers had no choice but to applaud Obama’s frequent Republican-lite lines. (Another, on health care: “I’m willing to look at other ideas to bring down costs, including one that Republicans suggested last year – medical malpractice reform to rein in frivolous lawsuits.’) If an Obama speech can be judged on the basis of how well it co-opts the opposition, then this one scored high.All told, Obama’s clear intent last night was to drive to the middle of the electorate, where the swing voters reside. In part because his party lost big in the midterms, in part because the Arizona shootings have dampened the usual partisan strife, in part because Republicans have internal tensions that pit establishment conservatives against the tea-party purist conservatives, Obama headed for the center. It was wide open. And it was a propitious time to call for a lowering of voices and an uptick in bipartisan cooperation.Granted, Obama got in a few licks for his own team. He defended the sanctity of Social Security, and said he would not accept any long-term solution that would require “slashing benefits for future generations” or “subjecting Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.” He defended the health reform law, and basically told the Republicans to get over it (“instead of re-fighting the battles of the last two years, let’s fix what needs fixing and move forward”). He insisted that, while we should rid ourselves of “rules that put an unnecessary burden on business,” he would “not hesitate to create and enforce common-sense safeguards to protect the American people.”

    He agreed that deep budget cuts are necessary, “but let’s make sure that we’re not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.” He agreed that government spending on new energy sources should be fully paid for – but, to achieve that goal, he wants “to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies.” (The industry’s Republican friends didn’t like that line. When Big Oil is the beneficiary of government largess, that’s when “socialism” is fine and dandy.)Nevertheless, his careful centrism compelled him to ignore some crucial concerns. I suggested here yesterday that he might summon the moxie to expend a whole paragraph on the need for gun law reform in the wake of the Arizona shootings – particularly since most Americans support a ban on high-capacity clips – but there was nary a phrase. (An Obama aide promised that the president would address the gun issue in a “different venue, different speech, later date.”) Nor did Obama mention global warming and climate change legislation. Clearly, he wanted to prioritize the meat-and-potatoes themes (jobs, competitiveness, innovation, infrastructure, bipartisanship) without raising divisive issues and thus stepping on his own story line. And if liberals were miffed by this, well, that was a short-term hit he was willing to take.And apparently the White House strategy worked. In an overnight CNN poll, 84 percent of Americans were positive about the speech, while only 15 percent were negative. (Those numbers are virtually identical to how Americans reacted to President Bush’s 2003 SOTU speech, on the eve of war, back when Bush was riding high.) Granted, enthusiasm for any SOTU speech tends to speedily dissipate, and the Republican lawmakers who felt boxed in last night will surely be remilitarized for partisan battle within days. As Obama himself predicted in his address, “We will argue about everything. The costs. The details. The letter of every law.” But his move to the center will make him tougher to caricature, and his call for bipartisanship puts the ball in the GOP’s court. Republicans had better hope that the economy stays in the toilet, because it’s not so easy to topple a guy who has the rhetorical upper hand. As Newt Gingrich remarked the other day, “That’s why presidents are hard to beat.”——-I won’t bother to critique the two Republican rebuttals. It’s not worth the effort. Congressman Paul Ryan, the official party responder, trafficked too blatantly in fundamental untruths. For instance, he charged that Obama’s regime “taxes too much.” Yet, in reality world, an overwhelming majority of Americans have received tax cuts since Obama took over. In fact, nearly one-third of the economic stimulus law – $288 billion – was comprised of tax breaks to businesses and individuals.Actually, my favorite remark last night was uttered by Florida Republican congressman Jeff Miller. It was a classic case of willful denial: “I don’t think I heard (Obama) use the word ‘cut’ once.” Is that so? Well, I have the SOTU transcript right here. While discussing fiscal issues, Obama used the word 13 times.Meanwhile, we have Michele Bachmann, the designated tea-party responder. My apologies, but I can’t take her seriously – based on something she said during a speech the other day. Here it is, verbatim:”We know there was slavery that was still tolerated when the nation began. We know that was evil. And it was a scourge, and a blot and a stain upon our history. But we also know that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States. And I think that it’s high time that we recognize the contributions of our forebears who worked tirelessly – men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country.”There are no words.

    OK, maybe a few: Apparently unbeknownst to Bachmann, “the very founders that wrote those documents” did not work tirelessly to eradicate slavery. They preserved it, and deemed a slave to be three-fifths of a person. Washington and Jefferson were slaveowners, for Pete’s sake. James Monroe ordered the execution of 30 slaves who tried to revolt. Slavery was not only “still tolerated when the nation began,” it was tolerated for another 70 years until more than 600,000 Americans had to die in a war before it was “no more.” (As for John Quincy Adams, his 19th-century contributions have long been recognized; perhaps Bachmann should rent the Spielberg film Amistad. It was released 14 years ago, with Anthony Hopkins cast as the heroic Adams.)Obama talked a lot last night about education reform. Perhaps Bachmann could inaugurate that program by returning to fifth grade for some basic history. It demeans the tea-party movement to choose, as a spokesperson, a clueless conservative who rewrites the Founding Fathers in the name of patriotism.

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