I thought the President gave a strong and progressive second inaugural speech yesterday, one that resonantly underscored the most important themes he's been promulgating since before anyone even knew who he was. What I don't see so clearly is the path that goes from our budget constraints to meeting the aspirations the President articulated yesterday.
The speech revisited the themes that had him standing up there today as opposed to his opponent in the campaign: a strong role for government in areas like climate change and critical investments (can you find another inaugural speech that mentions "research labs?"), opportunities for the least advantaged, retirement security, and "we're-in-this-together" versus "you're-on-your-own."
Some of my favorite parts:
On income inequality, a critical topic that gets short shrift:
For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.
On the alleged tradeoff between reducing deficits and investments in today's needs:
But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.
On the role of the safety net and social insurance:
We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.
All true, all great stuff, and all deeply felt, I believe, by this eloquent and continuously impressive man -- our President.
But here's the thing -- and I apologize for putting on the green eyeshades on a day marking a new beginning. We've been cutting, and may very possibly cut further, the very part of the budget that supports many of the areas the President was talking about today in terms of future investments.
That's the non-defense discretionary side of the budget, the part that funds many of the programs in pre-school and higher educational access, housing support, investments in health research and R&D, veterans' health, and more. It's also where many of the cuts have come from so far. When you hear politicians taking credit for cutting spending by "lowering the caps," this is what they're talking about (though to be fair, the defense side has come down as well). The administration itself has promoted a goal of getting NDD down to its lowest level as a share of the economy in decades (see figure).
The problem is, as my colleague Richard Kogan explains here, that with the cuts we've implemented so far, over the next decade "...it would require $615 billion above what the caps allow to maintain the same level of benefits and services per person as in 2012." That's "the same level." And I took a lot of what I heard today to imply the need to do more.
I'm not saying every dollar of NDD is currently being efficiently spent. Nor is any budget path immutable. Like I said, I believe the President means everything he spoke about today. But he's also the guy who put yet another $100 billion of NDD cuts on the budget table in an earlier iteration of the fiscal cliff deal (though the R's rejected it). On the other hand, let's be very clear about this: his cuts in this area are far less deep than the other guy who could've been standing on the dais today.
There's often a mismatch between aspirations and budgets in politics. Let's be sure to stay tuned to this particular one -- in an age of excessive inequality and blocked opportunity for too many of us, it's one of the most important.
Addendum: My pal GL's favorite part:
It is now our generation's task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law -- for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.
This post originally appeared at Jared Bernstein's On The Economy blog.