Because of some unavoidable delays in posting at the New York Times eXaminer over the next several days, I've posted my column for today's NYTX here. I'll probably take this down after the column goes up at NYTX. I'll transfer any comments over; I'll give the commenters credit, naturally, but the comments willl have to go above my name.
New York Times columnist David Brooks is disappointed: President Obama did not devote his State of the Union address to a “grand plan” to dispense with the old, the sick and the poor once and for all.
Brooks begins today's column pining for the good ole days when it appeared the deficit hawks on the Simpson-Bowles Commission would prevail upon the Congress and the President to slash the deficit by cutting spending on what the right characterizes as “entitlement programs.” As Robert Greenstein and James Horney of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities wrote, “Budget cuts account for 69 percent of the savings” in Simpson-Bowles' most recent proposal. Those cuts come largely, though not entirely, from “non-security discretionary spending”; that is, from social safety net programs. Worse,
The plan also relies on reductions in scheduled Social Security benefits for most of the changes it proposes to ensure the program’s long-term solvency. Those benefit cuts outweigh the proposed revenue increases by 2 to 1 over 75 years — and by 4 to 1 in the 75th year. This does not represent a balanced approach to Social Security reform.
Using the most conciliatory language possible, Greenstein and Horney write that Simpson-Bowles “raises question as to whether the funding for this part of the budget would be adequate to meet critical national needs in the decade ahead.”
Brooks also longs for the “big ideas” proposed by the fiscally-conservative Peter G. Peterson Foundation, a foundation funded by the multi-billionaire hedge-fund operator Pete Peterson. The foundation is devoted to scaring Americans about the “gargantuan” national debt and pressing the need to end Social Security and other social safety net programs, the better to protect the wealthy – like Peterson. “Peterson money is everywhere,” Eric Kingson, co-director of Social Security Works told Benjamin Sarlin of the Daily Beast. “They've managed to insinuate themselves as centrists when what we have in my mind is a really far-out anti-government conservative perspective.” Sarlin documents how Peterson influenced the Simpson-Bowles Commission and how he has used his money to insinuate his views into media coverage of the budget deficit. Economist Dean Baker asked, “Do you have to work for Pete Peterson to be cited on budget issues in the Washington Post?” The question is rhetorical. Post coverage, as Baker documents, suggests that the answer is “yes.”
Brooks complains that in President Obama's speech, “There was nothing big, like tax reform or entitlement reform,” He credits Republicans, by contrast, for speaking “with epic alarm about the nation’s problems. They are unified behind big tax and welfare state reforms that would purge Washington and shake things up.” Yes, they are. Never mind that the drumbeat of this epic alarm and the militant, anti-government unity of the GOP are what have forced the nation into the sorry state it is today. The Occupy Wall Street movement fingers Wall Street, of course, but bought-and-paid-for politicians are responsible for allowing Wall Street and other big corporate interests to tank the economy and turn the American dream into an impossible dream for ordinary Americans.
Brooks further complains that President Obama's SOTU speech contained “a series of modest proposals that poll well.” It's an election year, Mr. Brooks. In election years, first-term Presidents do not use their major speeches to promote policies that voters abhor. The U.S. Constitution requires that presidents “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Although not Constitutionally required to speak on the state of the union annually, all modern presidents have done so. Therefore, “necessary and expedient measures” would be those measures that the president could reasonably expect the Congress to enact in the course of the coming year. In any presidential election year, with any Congress, even one of the president's own party, it is only reasonable to expect the Congress to adopt “modest proposals” – ones that would carry the nation through to the next presidency and next Congress. When the House of Representatives is controlled by the extraordinary do-nothing, Republican Tea Party, as it is today, the President would be a blithering fool if he asked such a Congress to adopt the “sweeping proposals” that are indeed necessary to return the federal government to the sound fiscal policies of the post-World War II boom years. The Congress is not going to act on such proposals.
In general, modern first-term presidents have used their election-year State of the Union addresses to set the themes of their campaigns for a second term. Franklin Roosevelt used his 1936 SOTU speech “to attack critics of the New Deal.” The theme of Ronald Reagan's 1984 speech was “There is renewed energy and optimism throughout the land.” Bill Clinton used his 1996 address to announce that “the era of big government is over.”
Brooks concedes that President Obama also had “some big themes in the speech.” Brooks doesn't mention the big themes because President Obama's overarching views do not sit well with David Brooks. As Helen Cooper of the New York Times wrote in her report on the President's address, Obama called for “an economy 'built to last,'” a phrase that comes “from the auto industry he helped save.” The President, Cooper wrote, “sketched out, albeit vaguely, what he called a blueprint for economic growth in which the wealthy play by the same rules as ordinary Americans.” David Brooks does not want the wealthy to have to play by the same rules the rest of us do. He prefers, instead, the Simpson-Bowles-Peterson prescriptions to slash spending at the expense of the needy and maintain relatively low contributions from the wealthy and super-wealthy. Economic fairness, where “everybody gets a fair shot” – one of President Obama's “big themes” – is anathema to a Brooksian worldview.
President Obama's other “big themes” were national unity and “reclaiming the American values” that led to the post-World War II boom. As I outlined in a previous column titled “A History Lesson for David Brooks,” these are precisely the values – and government policies – that the conservative movement, of which Brooks is a part, has for decades fought tooth-and-nail and by every means possible to dismantle. President Obama used his bully pulpit to try to bully an obstreperous, calcified Congress into taking a few small steps for humankind toward a massive course change that will eventually undo the disastrous, decades-in-the-making policies that have moved us away from the “American promise” the President hopes to restore. David Brooks says he longs for “transformational..., ground-shifting” policies. So does President Obama. But Brooks wants the “transformation” to put the final nail in the coffin of fairness and equal opportunity for success.
Thanks largely to the influence of Occupy Wall Street, President Obama at long last wants the nation to shift again toward a set of policies that foster an environment in which “everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” As President Obama said in his State of the Union address, “The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive.” It is an epic clash that pits President Obama against David Brooks and his ilk. It is Obama and Occupy vs. One Percenters like Pete Peterson who use their vast resources to set all the rules in their own favor. It is fundamental fairness vs. greed.
Is an epic clash big enough for you, Mr. Brooks?