The following was originally published by Politico.
With his Wednesday address to the nation, President Barack Obama enters the lists in the debate over the nation’s deficits. His path, no doubt, will contrast with the plan offered by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). But the president would be wise to not simply show Americans how we can balance our books but also lay out a strategy for rebuilding our future.
Ryan’s plan provides the president with an easy foil, a virtual burlesque of tuxedo priorities. It would lower taxes on the rich and corporations. It pays for that by slashing domestic spending, leaving the bloated defense budget virtually unscathed and ending Medicare and Medicaid as we know them, foisting rising costs on the most vulnerable — seniors, the disabled, the deathly ill and the impoverished. Then, after 10 years of this, the Congressional Budget Office concludes, the debt and deficits would essentially be where they would be if Congress left current law in place.
Beneath all this is a perverse George W. Bush fixation. Republicans want to reduce domestic spending to where it was in 2008, under Bush, and freeze it. They want to retain the Bush tax cuts in their entirety. They want to go back to Bush financial regulation, the Bush health care system, the Bush Big Oil energy policy, the Bush corporate trade policy. They are even intent on revisiting his failed effort to privatize Social Security — only this time taking on Medicare.
Obama will do good service to the country simply by standing for common sense and common decency against this offense. Make the case for shared sacrifice. Insist that cuts come from across the budget — defense included. Put top-end tax hikes on the table, arguing that the wealthiest Americans, who have pocketed most of the rewards of growth and most of the tax cuts over the past decade, must pay their fair share.
He needs to remind Americans of the fundamental reality: All the horrifying graphs that map rising deficits are based on soaring health care costs. Medicare, Medicaid and children’s health care are merely the budgetary expression of a broken health care system that, if not fixed, will bankrupt everything — companies, families, the federal government, states and localities.
Putting a lid on Medicare or Medicaid doesn’t do anything to get those costs under control.
The president should defend the steps taken in his health care reform to begin to limit costs and demand greater reform, starting with letting government negotiate bulk discounts for prescription drugs — reversing the deal that the administration cut with the drug companies in the health care bill.
The president will win that debate hands down. And Democrats can go into the 2012 elections salivating at taking on Republicans who voted to privatize Medicare and throw nursing home patients into the street.
But the country faces a bigger challenge — and the president has a bigger task than simply slapping down Ryan’s foolishness. The U.S. can’t recover the economy that existed before the collapse.
That economy was built on bubbles and debt and didn’t work for most Americans. The so-called Bush recovery — from 2002 to 2007 — was the first in modern history in which median household income declined. As Obama has said, we have to build a new foundation for growth, a new strategy for an economy that will revive a broad middle class.
But the old economy is reasserting itself. The extreme concentration of wealth and income continues — with the richest 1 percent still capturing more than 20 percent of the nation’s income. The concentrated and speculative financial casino has revived, with the top six banks having assets now worth 65 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product — up from 55 percent before the economic collapse. The unsustainable trade deficits are rising again, with the U.S. borrowing about $1.5 billion a day from abroad to cover them.
Neither the country nor the president can succeed just by balancing the books. We need a strategy for moving forward. In fact, getting deficits under control sensibly depends on reviving the economy and rebuilding the middle class.
Obama argued in his State of the Union address that we have to win the future, focusing on investments in education, innovation and infrastructure. He could augment this with a call to revive manufacturing in America, making more of what we use and selling more of what we make abroad.
This requires investing in renewable energy and ensuring that we will help lead the green industrial revolution now sweeping the world. That means ending the severe global imbalances in trade and challenging mercantilist nations such as China. And it requires progressive tax reform to afford the investments we need while paying down the deficit.
In many ways, the argument about Medicare is a metaphor for the choice our country faces. We can cater to powerful lobbies and entrenched interests, accept rising costs of a broken system — and seek to balance our books by breaking the promise of guaranteed care for the most vulnerable. Or we can push forward on reform, create a system that gets costs under control and is affordable for all.
Similarly, we can return to the old economy, accept the decline of the middle class and struggle to balance our books by slashing services and investments. Or we can have the confidence to build a new foundation for our economy, make things in America once more, invest in our people and revive the middle class.
We elected the president not to be an accountant but to lead us out of the mess he inherited. It is time to lead.