Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The sand in the lines:
Obama’s bring-it moment

In his 2008 presidential bid, as a way of arousing the drive for Change that was his campaign’s centerpiece, Barack Obama was fond of occasionally using a line attributed to the lore of the Hopi Indians: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

In a speech today in Washington, in a way that can’t be conveniently spun or tweaked or manicured, Barack Obama took the gloves off to become — finally, apparently — the full-throated Democratic president we’ve been waiting for.

His speech at George Washington University addressed the ballooning national debt in general strategic terms; this was not a speech for the details, the specifics of the how. What the speech did, and more effectively than we’d thought possible not so long ago, is to call out the Republicans on their lack-of-vision thing, the “Path to Prosperity” budget plan offered by the House Budget Chairman, GOP Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. In his 40-minute speech, the president threw down a gauntlet in front of the Republicans — after hitting ‘em in the head with it first. Bring it, he told them. Take your best shot.

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Obama used the speech to announce his plan to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over 12 years, an approach that “will require us to put everything on the table and take on excess spending wherever it exists in the budget.” That includes cuts at every level of government, including Medicare. But implicit in that statement, there’s also the intent to end the sacred-cow days of (among others) the ever-ballooning defense budget.

You could almost hear the Democratic base cheering when Obama said flat out that Medicare would not be reduced to a system of relatively worthless vouchers, and described the intent of the Republicans’ slash-and-burn legislative proposal as “less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America.”

And you could sense the alarm bells going off in Republican circles when the president said, in language almost pugnacious, that not reviving the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of the American people would figure in his deficit reduction plan. “I refuse to renew them again,” the president said.

“At a time when the tax burden of the wealthy is at its lowest level in half a century, the most fortunate among us can afford to pay a little more.”

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Saying the Ryan plan “paints a vision of our future that is deeply pessimistic,” Obama cut through the clutter of GOP misnomer about Republicans’ real intentions for Medicare. In recent days they’ve said they want to “reform” or “transform” Medicare; Obama said the Republican plan is one that “put simply, ends Medicare as we know it. ... That’s not right, and that’s not gonna happen as long as I’m president.”

As the Republican field for 2012 sorts itself out — Rick Santorum today announced he’s formed a toe-in-the-water committee for a possible presidential run, following Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty — the president’s speech indicates two generally strategic things: That at long last, he’s done with the conciliatory-to-a-fault relationship with the Republicans; and that right now, he’s setting the agenda for the 2012 campaign. He's defining the terms of engagement, no matter who the Republicans run against him.

The kernel of this speech, its fire and heart, will likely be at the heart of his own campaign next year. If the meme for Obama 2008 was Change, the meme for Obama 2012 may well be the Community of shared sacrifice in the nation’s most financially perilous hour.

“We will need to make reforms,” he said. “We will all need to make sacrifices, but we do not have to sacrifice the America we believe in, and as long as I’m president, we won’t.”

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“He drew a line in the sand today,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, the Missouri Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told The Huffington Post. “I hope [Republicans] understand their ability to walk away from negotiations and say they won may have just ended.”

As often happens, one phrase can carry the day in the media universe, and Cleaver’s phrase was spot-on (never mind that the atmospherics of the event, and the brinkmanship implicit in Obama’s speech, meant that the phrasemakers in the punditburo would have come to it eventually on their own).

The president did draw a line in the sand, but there was more beyond evidence of that phrasal convenience. Watching Obama today, there was a new fire, a new spine in the presidential delivery itself. He’s pushed back against his opponents before, but not like this.

“That’s not gonna happen,” “I won’t,” “I refuse.” These aren't the words of a rhetorical gentleman; this is the language of someone ready for a street fight. For all the past suspicions of Obama as appeaser-in-chief, there’s no escaping the stubbornness, the solidity of those phrases — said not by a candidate with no knowledge of the responsibilities of the White House, but by a sitting president with every knowledge of the leverage he now holds.

True, the devil’s in the details, and the follow-through. Rightly or wrongly, Obama’s been characterized more than once as a president temperamentally opposed to confrontation, one who’ll cave under pressure to avoid it, or even before any pressure’s been applied.

But anyone who thought the president would buckle this time had to feel good today. There was sand — nerve, strength and grit — in the president’s lines this afternoon, reason enough for the Democratic base to take heart while the Republicans arrayed against him take cover.

Image credit: Obama: Samantha Appleton/The White House

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