With tonight's State of the Union address, President Obama attempted to refocus his new second term with a focus on jobs and supporting the middle class. He clearly wants to stop talking about deficits and debt and start talking about reviving the economy for people. His best line was a clear attempt to pivot in the right direction:
Let's be clear: deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan. A growing economy that creates good, middle-jobs -- that must be the North Star that guides our efforts.
And yet, as Al Pacino, who longs to escape the mob, laments in The Godfather, "Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in," President Obama feels like he has to assert that "a plan to reduce the deficit must be part of our agenda" and that he must keep negotiating with Republicans about cutting spending and raising taxes. He could have declared tonight that we've done enough on deficit reduction -- and that, as the Economic Policy Institute has recently explained, we have stabilized the debt as a percentage of GDP and we should be spending money to spur growth. Instead, President Obama has clearly embraced the urging of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (and Republicans to the right of CBPP) that he needs to find and additional $1.5 trillion in deficit reductions. As a result, he's got most of the progressive movement working earnestly that we can accomplish this conservative goal in a way that doesn't cut important spending -- and mostly by raising taxes progressively -- or cuts Pentagon spending.
The president reminded his State of the Union audience that he has put forward proposals for "entitlement reform" in his quest for a "grand bargain" to achieve that $1.5 trillion target of additional deficit reduction. The fact is that President Obama has never taken off the table his very draconian offers: to impose the so-called "chained CPI" that would cut the benefits of current and future Social Security recipients. (See Daniel Marans' blog post on this at OurFuture.) Tonight the president talked in general terms about reforming Medicare -- including some good reforms, like reducing "taxpayer subsidies to prescription drug companies." But also still on Obama's table is his proposal to raise the eligibility age for receiving Medicare from 65 to 67. (He hasn't talked much about this lately, but he hasn't repudiated it either.) And tonight he mentioned the possibility of "asking more of the wealthiest seniors," a phrase that is usually cover for reducing Medicare benefits that middle class retirees really need.
So what should progressives take away from tonight's speech?
We should be overjoyed that President Obama says he wants to lead a crusade for jobs -- and even if he turns out to be too distracted (or not serious) to lead that fight and make it his biggest priority, WE should lead that battle, championing an even more ambitious agenda to create millions of jobs and robust economic growth.
We should continue to say to Obama and Congress: "Enough with the economic austerity. Let's declare victory on the debt and deficit front, dismantle the Congressionally-created "sequestration" cuts, and refocus on investing in jobs.
We should fight like hell to make sure that Democrats don't support cuts in actual benefits for current and future recipients of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- and we should make sure they don't change to the "chained CPI." Take action right now to send this message to Congress.
And we should work hard to support all the other progressive initiatives in President Obama's speech -- from universal pre-k education to immigration reform to reducing gun violence.
But most of all, we should encourage Obama and Congressional Democrats to stop talking about cutting essential programs -- and start talking, as the president tried to tonight, about investing in jobs and growth.