The president’s speech yesterday was notable to my ears for two things: the surprisingly direct attack on Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan and the ideology underpinning it (un-American!), and Obama’s general vagueness on how he would achieve the ambitious goals he set.
To be fair, though, it wasn’t as detail-lite as some of his previous orations, and pundits can often forget that a speech is a speech is a speech, and not a policy document. It has to be digestible, hit certain points, and steer clear of boring the less engaged members of the audience. Cicero probably would have been fuzzy on the details of Medicare reform, too.
The reaction to the speech has been notable for two things as well: firstly, it was better received by the liberal press than had been anticipated, and secondly, the speech showed that conservatives are much more entertaining respondents when it comes to this sort of thing.
Take The Wall Street Journal’s fantastically angry editorial this morning, “The Presidential Divider: Obama’s speech and even worse plans for deficits and debt.” If you thought Obama was hard on Ryan phew. How’s this, from the lede:
President Obama’s extraordinary response to Paul Ryan’s budget yesterday—with its blistering partisanship and multiple distortions—was the kind Presidents usually outsource to some junior lieutenant. Mr. Obama’s fundamentally political document would have been unusual even for a Vice President in the fervor of a campaign.
Other choice highlights: the speech was “toxic” and its claims “ludicrous” and “dishonest even by modern political standards.” The gentlemanly Times editorial page this is not.
One of the sticking points in the Journal editorial is the superiority of the Ryan plan that was so maligned by Obama in the speech. As opposed to Ryan’s “trying to maintain a social security safety net and the economic growth necessary to finance it,” Obama offered a “false choice of merely preserving the government we have with no realistic plan for doing so, aside from proposing $4 trillion in phantom deficit reduction over a gimmicky 12-year budget window that makes that reduction seem larger than it would be over the normal 10-year window.”
As for the Independent Payment Advisory board the president touted, which would step in if per capita Medicare costs grew by more than GDP plus 0.5 percent, well:
So 15 sages sitting in a room with the power of the purse will evidently find ways to control Medicare spending that no one has ever thought of before and that supposedly won’t harm seniors’ care, even as the largest cohort of the baby boom generation retires and starts to collect benefits.
Mickey Kaus at The Daily Caller hit the same note, sarcastically writing of the “Anti-Ryan speech”:
The all powerful Independent Payment Advisory Board will save us! This is always Obama’s deficit solution. Democracy can’t handle the truth!(“It is very difficult to imagine the country making those decisions just through the normal political channels.”) But will Congress freely cede power over who gets what treatment to an unelected “advisory” board of experts? It happens with the Fed. But health care involves actual constituents living and dying
Paul Krugman, one of those liberals pleasantly surprised by a speech that wore its progressivism on its rolled up, blood-splattered sleeves, disagreed with those assessments of the Board.
The main thing, though, is the strengthened role of and target for the Independent Payment Advisory Board. This can sound like hocus-pocus—but it’s not.
As I understand it, it would force the board to come up with ways to put Medicare on what amounts to a budget—growing no faster than GDP + 0.5—and would force Congress to specifically overrule those proposed savings. That’s what cost-control looks like! You have people who actually know about health care and health costs setting priorities for spending, within a budget; in effect, you have an institutional setup which forces Medicare to find ways to say no.
But getting back to those delightfully irritated conservative wordsmiths, Charles Krauthammer made his thoughts known on Fox very soon after the speech was delivered. From a Daily Caller report:
“I thought it was a disgrace,” he said. “I rarely heard a speech by a president so shallow, so hyper-partisan and so intellectually dishonest, outside the last couple of weeks of a presidential election where you are allowed to call your opponent anything short of a traitor. But, we’re a year-and-a-half away from Election Day and it was supposed to be a speech about policy. He didn’t even get to his own alternative until more than halfway through the speech. And when he did, he threw out numbers suspended in mid-air with nothing under them with all kinds of goals and guidelines and triggers that mean nothing. The speech was really about and entirely an attack on the [Rep. Paul] Ryan plan.”
The attacks on Ryan’s plan certainly upset the right, particularly suggestions that his plan would lead to a different kind of America than the one the president knew. “It’s hardly beyond criticism or debate,” said the Journal, “but the Ryan plan is neither Big Rock Candy Mountain nor some radical departure from American norms.” On Morning Joe today they similarly debated the politics of making the stinging criticisms with Ryan in the room. Wasn’t that a touch un-presidential? And just rude? But give Obama his props—he went the face-to-face route, which is more than can be said for some unpresidential presidential aspirants currently implying that Obama is literally un-American.
Still, there are those who feel attacking Ryan’s plan was not enough without proposing a fully formed alternative to it. In a particularly scathing assessment, The Atlantic’s Clive Crook called the speech “a waste of breath” that lacked any semblance of a concrete plan. He also touched on what he sees as an irony in Obama’s position on the Bush tax cuts: Obama railed against the tax cuts while only saying he would let them expire for the top bracket. “Even now, he is deploring the Bush tax cuts as the cause of all the country’s problems while actually proposing to leave most of them there,” Crook wrote.
All this attacking had a different effect on liberals. Pundits in the days leading up to the speech had suspected that cuts and concessions to the Republicans would be too much to swallow for the punditocracy’s left-leaners. But from Krugman to Klein, they seem relatively impressed with the president’s moxie.
Here’s Jonathan Bernstein of A Plain Blog About Politics:
Liberals have wanted a full-throated affirmation of why government is a good thing? Obama delivered, with perhaps his strongest case for a liberal vision of government that he’s given so far during his presidency.
Liberals wanted some strong pushback against the substance of Paul Ryan’s budget? That’s what Obama delivered, describing what will soon be the House GOP budget as a tradeoff between health care on the one hand (for seniors, the disabled, the poor) and tax cuts for the wealthy on the other.
Liberals like to think of themselves as the grown-ups of the budget debate? Obama gave both a budget history lesson and some facts about the composition of the budget that positioned himself—and liberals—as serious, compared to those who talk about waste, abuse, and foreign aid.
Finally, liberals are saying, the president has embraced liberalism. Krugman wrote in his movie review-like assessment: “I liked the way Obama made a case for government at the beginning. I liked the way he accused Republicans of pessimism, of abandoning a hopeful vision of America. Good that he went after the Ryan plan—and good that he went after the cruelty of that plan.”
Jonathan Cohn at The New Republic said, “The president can seem like a compulsive mediator But in the budget speech Obama drew a clear contrast between his vision of America and that of the Republicans. Even as Obama called for bipartisan cooperation and cited, as a model for budget balancing, the work of his bipartisan deficit commission, he described the proposal from House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan in stark, but accurate, terms.”
Cohn also points out something all of us who follow this stuff can too-often forget: very few people were watching yesterday or will read about the speech today. “Its significance lies primarily in how it frames the debate, and negotiations, going forward,” he writes.
For sheer color and audacity, the Journal’s editorial page will be fine viewing as that debate goes on.