The president’s rousing rejection of Republican radicalism

THE PRESIDENT’S ROUSING REJECTION OF REPUBLICAN RADICALISM…. As much as I wish this wasn’t a speech he felt compelled to deliver, President Obama’s speech on the nation’s fiscal future was one of my favorites in a long while. It was exactly the sort of spirited defense of government and progressive values the nation desperately needed to hear right now.

There’s quite a few angles to consider here, but the first is the president’s take on Paul Ryan’s House Republican budget plan.

Last week, when the White House was criticized from the left for not having said more about the GOP vision, I wrote about my expectations for this week’s message: “I want to see a forceful, unapologetic response. I want a hearty defense of government. I want officials explaining why Paul Ryan’s plan is dangerous and ridiculous.”

This afternoon, in Obama’s address, I got all of those things. The president emphasized early on that the Republican proposal would “lead to a fundamentally different America than the one we’ve known throughout our history.”

“A 70% cut in clean energy. A 25% cut in education. A 30% cut in transportation. Cuts in college Pell Grants that will grow to more than $1,000 per year. That’s what they’re proposing. These aren’t the kind of cuts you make when you’re trying to get rid of some waste or find extra savings in the budget. These aren’t the kind of cuts that the Fiscal Commission proposed. These are the kind of cuts that tell us we can’t afford the America we believe in. And they paint a vision of our future that’s 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. Brazil is investing billions in new infrastructure and can run half their cars not on high-priced gasoline, but biofuels. And yet, we are presented with a vision that says the United States of America — the greatest nation on Earth — can’t afford any of this.

“It’s a vision that says America can’t afford to keep the promise we’ve made to care for our seniors. It says that ten years from now, if you’re a 65 year old who’s eligible for Medicare, you should have to pay nearly $6,400 more than you would today. It says instead of guaranteed health care, you will get a voucher. And if that voucher isn’t worth enough to buy insurance, tough luck — you’re on your own. Put simply, it ends Medicare as we know it.

“This is a vision that says up to 50 million Americans have to lose their health insurance in order for us to reduce the deficit. And who are those 50 million Americans? Many are someone’s grandparents who wouldn’t be able afford nursing home care without Medicaid. Many are poor children. Some are middle-class families who have children with autism or Down’s syndrome. Some are kids with disabilities so severe that they require 24-hour care. These are the Americans we’d be telling to fend for themselves.

“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 maintain or commitment to Medicare and Medicaid, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy. Think about it. In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90% of all working Americans actually declined. Meanwhile, the top 1% 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.”

I was especially pleased to hear the president dismiss the notion — touted by far too many pundits — that the Ryan plan is “serious and courageous.” As the president reminded us, “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. There’s nothing courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill. And this is not a vision of the America I know.”

There were concerns among some of my fellow progressives going into this speech that the president may accept parts of the GOP plan or express some sympathies for the Republican vision. The opposite happened — this was a full-throated condemnation, not just of the radical Paul Ryan plan, but of the far-right goals it intends to pursue.

I know many hoped to hear this message from the White House last week, but from where I sat today, it was worth the wait.

Update: There was also this paragraph from the remarks: “[L]et me be absolutely clear: I will preserve these health care programs as a promise we make to each other in this society. I will not allow Medicare to become a voucher program that leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry, with a shrinking benefit to pay for rising costs. I will not tell families with children who have disabilities that they have to fend for themselves. We will reform these programs, but we will not abandon the fundamental commitment this country has kept for generations.”