Obama budget speech: The president enters the fray and tries to stay above it.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 13 2011 7:52 PM

Game On, Sort Of

President Obama both enters the fray and tries to stay above it in the great budget debate.

President Obama. Click image to expand.
President Obama

Sen. Rand Paul was not impressed with President Obama's deficit speech. "He's amending his own budget?" Paul asked as he watched in his threadbare temporary Senate office on Wednesday afternoon. "Didn't he just release a budget a month ago?" The president was in fact revising himself, upping his commitment to deficit reduction from the budget he put forth in February. "He's reading the tea leaves," Paul said, grinning at his pun. "Or they're hearing the polls which say we're winning all the battles."

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Obama was not speaking to Paul. But if not for the Kentucky senator and the Tea Party movement he represents, the president might not have been speaking at all. Obama was playing catch-up, showing that he could at least keep pace with the government-cutting leaps performed by conservative Republicans. But he was also yelling, "Stop," issuing his strongest indictment to date of budget policies he says would hurt America if enacted.

Advertisement

This was a battle cry in the great budget debate to come—or as near to a battle cry as the pragmatic and careful Obama can offer. The president took a moral stand based on the idea that Americans must maintain their commitment to help the poor and unlucky or else trade away greatness. He defended the good that government can do, putting this speech in the same category as the appeal he made to House Democrats on the eve of the vote on his health care program.

The speech was sweeping in scope and clarified the terms of the debate we'll be having until the 2012 election. It is the discussion of big issues the president and his aides have been waiting for. White House aides have long been saying that Obama did not want to wade into the smaller fight over last year's budget so that he could preserve himself for the bigger fight to come.

Obama claimed that Republicans didn't just want to shrink the budget but wanted to change "the basic social compact." Republicans offer a vision of America in which government gets out of the way to unleash the power of the free market, which in turn allows prosperity to spread for all. Obama acknowledged that this was a part of the American character, but argued that in pursuit of this goal Republicans were abandoning an equally fundamental and historic commitment: to the American belief that "we are all connected."

Republicans have accused the president of insufficiently heralding America's greatness. Obama's aides have long seen the grand budget battle as his opportunity to turn this accusation against Republicans. Obama started the effort in the State of the Union, arguing that his vision was in sync with the concept of America's exceptional qualities. In this speech he turned the idea into a weapon, accusing Republicans of insufficient hope in the nation.

Calling the United States "the greatest nation on Earth," the president said the cuts Republicans posed "paint a vision of our future that's deeply pessimistic" in which the less fortunate and the investments in growth must be abandoned. "We are a better country because of these commitments," he said. "I'll go further—we would not be a great country without those commitments."

"He is so out of touch he just doesn't get it," said Paul after the speech. "If you care about poor people and you care about senior citizens, you can't accept the status quo." Paul's argument is that the budget crisis threatens the government's ability to honor its commitments. Paul would allow the retirement age to rise and would also allow means-testing benefits for the wealthy.

Obama tried to define a framework for a budget agreement, but he also tried to define the political context in which the budget debate would take place. He heralded three previous budget agreements during the last several decades, that were bipartisan and based on shared sacrifice.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 29 2014 10:00 PM “Everything Must Change in Italy” An interview with Italian Prime Minster Matteo Renzi.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 29 2014 1:52 PM Do Not Fear California’s New Affirmative Consent Law
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 29 2014 12:01 PM This Is Your MOM’s Mars
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.