President Obama’s economic speech today is putatively a broad-stroke overview of his economic vision — investing in physical infrastructure and early childhood education, restraining runaway inflation in the cost of health care and college, and marginally shifting the burden of government away from the middle class and toward the rich. In reality, it is a call for a responsible opposition.
Thematically, it is hard to build a speech around the opposition when you’re president, because people expect the president to lead and set the agenda. But the extraordinary tactics of the House Republicans have created an unusual and counterintuitive situation wherein the president’s agenda is mostly irrelevant. Conservatives simply refuse to negotiate with Obama in conventional terms. Their strategy is to threaten a series of crises — government shutdown, defaulting on the debt — in order to force the president to offer unilateral concessions.
Ideology certainly provides some of the backdrop for the showdown, as Obama conceded. The two parties disagree not only on the proper size of government but also its basic functions. House Republicans recently voted to reduce funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency, a Department of Energy program that has produced all sorts of cutting edge scientific developments, and the epitome of the sort of government investment Obama wants to increase. This happened just after House Republicans voted to increase (and lock in) ludicrous farm subsidies, a program Obama has urged them to cut.
But the deeper problem is the Republican opposition to negotiating the differences at all. Boehner insisted yesterday he would not lift the debt ceiling, a move he has previously conceded is absolutely necessary, unless Obama agrees to additional spending cuts, though Boehner has not even specified the cuts he has in mind. Meanwhile, the GOP is increasingly rallying around the threat of a government shutdown as a last-ditch stand to prevent the implementation of health care reform.
Obama mounted an ideological defense of his vision of government. But mainly he dared Republicans to stop acting like madmen. The most important line in his speech is a kind of subordinate clause:
And as long as Congress doesn’t manufacture another crisis — as long as we don’t shut down the government just as the economy is getting traction, or risk a U.S. default over paying bills we’ve already racked up — we can probably muddle along without taking bold action.
That’s wrapped in a plea to not muddle along and to take bold action instead, but it’s also a tactic recognition that simply not manufacturing a crisis is an ambitious goal for the House Republicans. Obama likewise praised a handful of Republican Senators who have been meeting with him and working to restore some basic normality to Washington — give-and-take negotiating rather than hostage-taking:
A growing number of Republican Senators are trying to get things done, like an immigration bill that economists say will boost our economy by more than a trillion dollars …
I believe there are members of both parties who understand what’s at stake, and I will welcome ideas from anyone, from across the political spectrum …
The fact is, there are Republicans in Congress right now who privately agree with me on many of the ideas I’ll be proposing, but worry they’ll face swift political retaliation for saying so.
Obama’s ultimate goal is not merely to insulate himself from blame if and when House Republicans shut down the government or threaten to default on the debt, but to build a coalition with pragmatic Republicans to negotiate around Boehner’s back. It’s not totally hopeless: Mitch McConnell is fighting back a revolt among pragmatic Republicans, like John McCain, who want to compromise on the budget. Paul Ryan insists he doesn’t care what Obama and Senate Republicans negotiate, he won’t compromise:
“It doesn’t matter — we’re not going to do what they want to do,” the Wisconsin Republican told POLITICO when asked about Senate Republicans’ plan for the debt ceiling. “It really doesn’t matter what they do. It doesn’t matter what John McCain and others do on the taxes and the rest. If they want to give up taxes for the sequester, we’re not going to do that. So it doesn’t really affect us.”
Obama’s speech laid out a compelling vision of long-term prosperity, but the inescapable reality he faces is much, much uglier.