President Obama didn't just suddenly decide, out of the blue, that now was the time to tackle the national debt. He's revealing his debt-reduction plan now because about a week ago, Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan released his own detailed plan, one that fundamentally alters Medicare and Medicaid while lowering taxes. It's a plan that, because it was the first to be proposed, has become the centerpiece of the debt debate. So before detailing his own debt-reduction proposals in a speech at George Washington University this afternoon, Obama laid out his critique of Ryan's. Scathingly.
In sum, Ryan's plan would destroy America as we know it and probably kill some poor people and disabled children. It would give tax cuts to the wealthy while forcing the elderly to sell off precious family heirlooms just to afford health care. So what's in Obama's plan?
Obama's budget would lower deficits by $4 trillion over the course of twelve years through four main planks:
1. Keeping discretionary spending low while still investing in education, infrastructure, medical research, and clean energy.
2. Continuing to cut defense spending (which Ryan's budget didn't do at all).
3. Building on cost-saving initiatives in last year's health-care reform legislation, preserving Medicare in its current form but controlling costs.
4. Letting Bush tax cuts expire and making the tax code simpler, with lower rates but fewer expenditures (exemptions, deductions, exclusions, credits, etc).
So that's the gist of the plan (one with a few similarities to the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission). Beyond the specifics of how he'll lower the debt, there were three general themes that Obama emphasized in his speech:
Shared sacrifice: "I believe that most wealthy Americans would agree with me," Obama says of not needing a tax cut. "They want to give back to the country that’s done so much for them." Ryan's budget didn't ask for wealthy Americans to sacrifice; Obama's does.
Middle of the road: As he often does, Obama tried to align himself not with the Democratic vision of debt reform, but somewhere between the left and the right. While some on the right argue that we shouldn't raise taxes even on the wealthy, Obama said, and some on the left "will say that we shouldn’t even talk about cutting spending until the economy is fully recovered," Obama has proposed doing both of those things. This is something he basically does with every speech he's ever made.
Government is good: We're having a sharp and vigorous debate "about the size and role of government," Obama says, and he's not backing away from defending the social safety net or the importance of government investment in the country's future. While the government has to spend less, it can't do it by rejecting these core missions.