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Obama and the Budget Civil War

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WASHINGTON -- Today, on the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, we're in the midst of another one. It's bloodless and less dramatic, but sparked by the same issue: the moral role and reach of the federal government.

This is a never-ending debate, one with roots that go back hundreds of years in our society. But it's more urgent now than it has been in decades.

There are two main reasons. The obvious one is that we are about as broke as the world's only superpower can afford to be. We have to make agonizing choices.

The other is that anti-government conservatives have been building to this moment for decades, and the defenders of Washington's role have preferred for most of those years to operate by stealth, by tactical retreats, and by shying away from debating the fundamentals.

Now they have no choice.

Republican Rep. Paul Ryan fired the fiscal equivalent of the first shot at Ft. Sumter. He has proposed sun-setting the modern capstone of American governmental commitment: Medicare, which, since 1965, has guaranteed taxpayer-funded health care to every American 65 and older. It looks like the GOP leadership is going to hope for the best and follow his lead and make the idea the centerpiece of their budget in the House.

Ryan wants to do to Medicare what major corporations have done with their health care plans: convert them from an open-ended commitment (a "defined benefit" plan) to a menu of outsourced private providers, with an individual cap for each employee -- a cap that's easy to ratchet down over time by the employer, AKA, in this case, the government.

Enter President Barack Obama. He is battered and distrusted by the left for his concessions in budget negotiations -- not to mention his past support of the Bush tax cuts and his retreat on Guantanamo and civilian trials for terrorists.

But tomorrow night, in a speech to the nation, a Lincoln-loving Obama will offer viewers and voters a strong defense of the moral role of the federal government.

He has no choice, but it also is an opportunity if he is willing to seize it with eloquence and conviction.

He and his advisors see the GOP's attack on Medicare as a fateful blunder, one that can allow Democrats to reframe the debate away from deficit-reduction to the need to preserve the social safety net and sense of one nation.

History moves in generational waves, and this is both the conclusion of one and the beginning of something, the course of which no one can predict.

Some forty years ago -- a generation, as measured by the Bible -- the Great Society was at its intellectual and political zenith in the presidency of LBJ. But the upheavals of the 1960s also gave birth to a new wave of conservatives, who have spent the intervening years building an alternative universe of antagonism to the moral prerogatives of a central government.

Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton rarely fought the conservatives on first principles. Carter and Clinton were small-town Southern Democrats who learned how to swim upstream in a slowly but steadily Rising Right tide embodied by Ronald Reagan.

Barack Obama was supposed to be something new and different. He ran by presenting himself as a Reagan-level change agent, a new synthesis. But aside from a health-care plan that is in large measure a give away to the industry -- and aside from spending tons of money on tax cuts and two and a half wars -- he hasn't really been either a force for change or a staunch defender of the progressive heritage. Witness the budget deal he just agreed to.

And yet he is, by background and inclination, a big-city progressive. He does believe in the ameliorative role that only the federal government can play in our system and in our culture. At least he says he does.

If the Obama thinks Medicare is essential to our Union, he had better make the case convincingly tomorrow. If he does so effectively, Republicans may decide that Private Ryan is a brave man, but not one to be followed into battle. If the president doesn't, say goodbye to Medicare as we know it.