Austerity will have to wait

Ari Berman noticed something missing from President Obama’s speech last night: “austerity economics.” This comes as something of a relief.

There were no references, for example, to growing the economy by focusing on deficit reduction. Obama talked about reforming some outdated government regulations, but immediately said he will not allow Republicans to “wipe out the basic protections that Americans have counted on for decades.” He added, “I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy.”

The president also noted that some prefer to “just dismantle government, refund everyone’s money, let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they’re on their own,” a sentiment that’s increasingly popular in far-right circles. But, Obama said, “that’s not who we are.”

“[T]here has always been another thread running throughout our history — a belief that we are all connected; and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation.

“We all remember Abraham Lincoln as the leader who saved our Union. Founder of the Republican Party. But in the middle of a Civil War, he was also a leader who looked to the future — a Republican president who mobilized government to build the transcontinental railroad; launch the National Academy of Sciences; and set up the first land grant colleges. And leaders of both parties have followed the example he set.

“Ask yourselves — where would we be right now if the people who sat here before us decided not to build our highways and our bridges; our dams; our airports? What would this country be like if we had chosen not to spend money on public high schools, or research universities, or community colleges? Millions of returning heroes, including my grandfather, had the opportunity to go to school because of the GI Bill. Where would we be if they hadn’t had that chance?

“How many jobs would it have cost us if past Congresses decided not to support the basic research that led to the Internet and the computer chip? What kind of country would this be if this Chamber had voted down Social Security or Medicare just because it violated some rigid idea about what government could or could not do? How many Americans would have suffered as a result?

“No single individual built America on their own. We built it together.”

This wasn’t just a strong rebuke to the dominant philosophy in Republican politics; it was also a reminder that a belief in government activism has traditionally been fundamental to the American experience.

One of the underlying political crises of 2011 is that the public, due in part to deliberate neglect, simply lack faith in government institutions, no longer sure if officials are even capable of addressing meaningful problems. For Republicans, who’ve fed these doubts, this means the government shouldn’t even try to create jobs, grow the economy, or do much anything at all.

Obama wisely took the time to remind the public that the right is wrong. It was arguably one of the speech’s more important moments.