Stark choices for the nation
President Barack Obama took to the airwaves Wednesday afternoon to outline his vision of how to reduce the nation’s deficit, while keeping the nation strong. Republicans countered with their own vision of what this country could be under their tutelage.
In a nutshell, the roles haven’t shifted dramatically in recent years, though the context has.
Democrat President Obama championed a vision Wednesday that was three parts cuts in government spending to one part tax increase. Republicans, on the other hand, say their plan will reduce the national deficit by cutting government spending (though not the military) by bucket loads, as well as cutting more taxes to the wealthy and corporations. The brunt of the sacrifice will be on the poor and middle class — the 90 percent of American taxpayers.
“Facts” in a political context are always slippery. Both sides say they can reach their goal of reducing the deficit by $4 trillion in 10 to 12 years from a purely mathematical perspective.
The Republican logic, however, was tried for eight years under President G.W. Bush and failed miserably. Under Bush’s leadership, the nation saw the budget surplus that President Clinton had accumulated as of 2000, squandered by two successive tax cuts, which, in turn, have saddled the nation with part of its staggering debt. Entering two wars, of course, only compounded the problem by nearly doubling the nation’s military spending under Bush, who refused to pay for the cost of fighting those wars during his presidency — shifting that burden to today’s leaders.
American voters will have to drink a lot of wild-eyed Kool-Aid to fall for the trickle-down theory of economics again — a political argument that saw an unprecedented growth in riches among the wealthiest few while the nation’s middleclass and poor saw their economic well-being decline rapidly.
That reality, however, doesn’t stop Republicans from singing their same old song.
“We don’t have deficits because Americans are taxed too little,” Rep. John A Boehner, the speaker of the House, said Tuesday, “we have deficits because Washington spends too much,” which completely ignores the fact that $1 trillion is due to the Bush tax cuts.
Democrats, on the other hand, have to defend their willingness to raise taxes to pay for needed services — services that they believe make the country stronger, not weaker, while showing Republicans as patsies for big business profits and the huge donations they get to fund their reelection campaigns.
It’s not a battle many Americans have the stomach to follow closely, but they must. As voters, it is crucial the majority understands the basis of each argument.
President Obama did a credible job of explaining how the nation slipped into its current fiscal problems, starting with the Bush tax cuts that amount to “trillions of dollars” that went to every millionaire and billionaire in the nation, in additional to a prescription drug benefit that again was not paid for. Those “unpaid-for” expenses, Obama noted, will force the government to borrow an average of $500 billion every year over the next decade. When Obama took office the projected deficit was $1 trillion, but he also inherited a country on the edge of economic collapse, which required the government rescue of the nation’s financial system, resolution of the housing crisis and propping up the nation’s automotive industry.
With that background established, he then was blunt about where government expenses come from:
• 2/3rds of the budget is spent on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and national security. That’s 66 percent.
• Another 20 percent is spent on unemployment insurance, student loans, veterans’ benefits and tax credits for working families.
• After interest on the debt, Obama explained, all that’s left is 12 percent for everything else: that covers “all other national priorities like education and clean energy; medical research and transportation; food safety and keeping our air and water clean; road and bridge work and other transportation issues; college scholarships; federal money for affordable housing or food shelters to feed the poor and hungry.”
The Republican vision, he said, would essentially decimate Medicare through a voucher program that would force seniors to pay $6,400 more 10 years from now they do today; that 50 million Americans would have to lose their health insurance to enable a balanced budget; that poor students who were smart but couldn’t afford college, would lose their scholarships and be denied that opportunity; that if roads and bridges fell into disrepair much more of those costs would be shifted to the states; and that incentives to wean our nation off oil and onto alternative fuels would be eliminated — as Americans watch the economics of green energy (and those jobs) move to foreign countries.
Worst of all, Obama said, the Republican vision holds that “even though America can’t afford to invest in education or clean energy; even though we can’t afford care for seniors and poor children, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy.”
Obama’s approach, on the contrary, is balanced by his willingness to significantly cut government spending (by $2 trillion), but also raise taxes on the wealthy to the pre-Bush era tax cuts, while also seeking $400 billion in defense cuts. He would reform the tax code by eliminating the $1 trillion in tax breaks for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, as well as close current tax loopholes for that same 2 percent that would generate another $320 billion in savings over 10 years. He would protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, while also putting into place a fail-safe debt reduction plan that requires more cuts to government spending or tax increases (which he termed “spending reductions in the tax code”) if the nation’s debt is not projected to fall as a share of the economy by 2014.
While members of both parties will squabble about the details, which are far more involved than this overview, the outline for the upcoming debate is set.
Americans have a choice: Will we be a nation that believes the rich will fairly distribute their riches among the middle class and poor of their own accord, and will we believe that middle class incomes will regain the prosperity of former decades through the sole generosity of corporations willing to pay higher wages? Or can we once again believe that government’s proper role is to ensure a more equal field of play between the rich and poor; that regulations help businesses thrive while also protecting consumers from abuse; that a strong military means little if our economy fails, thus mandating less spending on national security; that paying our fair share of taxes is everyone’s patriotic duty — a willingness on the part of the rich to give back to the country that has given so much to them?