How to use the wrong comparison the right way

HOW TO USE THE WRONG COMPARISON THE RIGHT WAY…. The headline on the new White House weekly address raises a familiar refrain, which I’ve never liked: “It’s time Washington acted as responsibly as our families do.”

We’ve been hearing this for a long while, usually from the right — during tough economic times, families and businesses scale back, so government should, too. The line has a certain intuitive charm that much of the public likes, which masks how wrong it is — the government needs to step up even more to keep the economy going when families and businesses pull back. It’s how FDR and Democrats ended the Great Depression in the 1930s, and how Obama and Dems prevented a sequel in 2009.

But in this morning’s address, President Obama managed to use the comparison that rankles in a way that resonated. He noted having received a letter from Brenda Breece, a mom in Missouri who works as a special-ed teacher. Her husband worked at a local Chrysler plant for nearly 40 years, but took early retirement when the plant closed, and his pension check goes quickly.

Like a lot of folks, the Breece family is struggling to get by, sacrificing to cut costs, using coupons, etc. But, as Obama explained, “they also know what investments are too important to sacrifice.” In this case, Brenda and her husband are scaling back dramatically, but they’re also helping pay their daughter’s college tuition.

The president explained in his address, as he prepares to release his new budget on Monday, “Families across this country understand what it takes to manage a budget. They understand what it takes to make ends meet without forgoing important investments like education. Well, it’s time Washington acted as responsibly as our families do.”

This is an important pitch. Next week, Republicans are going to say, “Families are cutting back in these hard times, and they expect Washington to do the same.” Obama is trying to turn this around, arguing in effect, “Families are cutting in some areas, but are still investing in areas like their kids’ college tuition, and there’s no reason Washington shouldn’t do the same.”

It’s a compelling way to frame the argument. Congressional Republicans think the way to prepare for the future is to scrap investments in education, infrastructure, transportation, law enforcement, medical research, and environmental protections. The White House is laying the groundwork for the defense — some cuts make sense, cuts that forgo important investments do not.

As the address put it, “[J]ust as the Breece family is making difficult sacrifices while still investing in the future — by helping their daughter pay her tuition — my budget does the same. I’m proposing that we invest in what will do the most to grow the economy in the years to come. This means job-creating investments in roads, high-speed speed trains, and broadband. This means cutting-edge research that holds the promise of creating countless jobs and whole new industries, like clean energy and biotechnology. And it means improving our schools and making college more affordable — to give every young person the chance to fulfill his or her potential, and receive the job training they need to succeed. Because it would be a mistake to balance the budget by sacrificing our children’s education.”

Expect to hear a lot more of this from the White House as the showdown over the budget moves closer to a shutdown.