The Country We Want?

Kind of an interesting week for a pajama-clad citizen journalist as Congress and the Prez raced to keep the doors of the federal government open — and as we began in earnest the 2012 election campaigns with conflicting budget proposals and visions for the future of the nation. Whew.

Yesterday, Congress passed the compromise legislation on the 2011 budget, despite a last-minute brou-ha-ha over whether the announced $38 billion in spending cuts would amount to only some $352 million this fiscal year. If you have the energy to try to sort that out, here’s an informative article from NPR, “How Washington Turned $38 billion Into $352 million.”

OK. Now on to the main events — the 2012 budget and the national election campaigns that really should give voters a clear choice about the future of this country, our willingness (or not) to fund a host of social programs, and the role and scope of government at all levels.

Obama began his campaign Wednesday, giving his presidential response to Representative Paul Ryan’s 2012 budget resolution, “The Path to Prosperity.” Note to the Prez: It does seem a little impolite to invite Ryan to attend the speech and then turn it in to as Rush says “a personal bitch slap.” Sheesh.

But I guess it depends on where you sit on the big issues being tossed around here.

Here’s from a NYT editorial “President Obama, Reinvigorated“:

The man America elected president has re-emerged.

For months, the original President Obama had disappeared behind mushy compromises and dimly seen principles. But on Wednesday, he used his budget speech to clearly distance himself from Republican plans to heap tax benefits on the rich while casting adrift the nation’s poor, elderly and unemployed. Instead of adapting the themes of the right to his own uses, he set out a very different vision of an America that keeps its promises to the weak and asks for sacrifice from the strong.

But the WSJ demurs in its opinion article, “The Presidential Divider“:

Did someone move the 2012 election to June 1? We ask because President Obama’s extraordinary response to Paul Ryan’s budget yesterday—with its blistering partisanship and multiple distortions—was the kind Presidents usually outsource to some junior lieutenant. Mr. Obama’s fundamentally political document would have been unusual even for a Vice President in the fervor of a campaign.

The immediate political goal was to inoculate the White House from criticism that it is not serious about the fiscal crisis, after ignoring its own deficit commission last year and tossing off a $3.73 trillion budget in February that increased spending amid a record deficit of $1.65 trillion. Mr. Obama was chased to George Washington University yesterday because Mr. Ryan and the Republicans outflanked him on fiscal discipline and are now setting the national political agenda.

OK. I can’t sort this mess out on an early Friday morning. So let’s turn to David Brooks in the NYT to get his take, “Ultimate Spoiler Alert“:

If they [President Obama and Paul Ryan] met, would they resolve their differences? No, but they would understand them better. Paul Ryan believes five things Barack Obama does not. First, he believes that aging populations, expensive new health care technologies and the extravagant political promises have made the current welfare state model unsustainable. Fundamental reform is necessary or the whole thing will collapse, here and in Europe.

Second, he believes that seniors and the middle class cannot be excused from the benefit cuts that will have to be imposed to rebalance these systems. Third, he believes that health care costs will not be brought under control until consumers take responsibility for their decisions and providers have market-based incentives to reduce prices.

Fourth, he believes that tax increases should not be part of these reforms because the economic costs outweigh the gains. Fifth, he does not believe government can nurture growth and reduce wage stagnation with targeted investments.

Obama, meanwhile, does not believe the current welfare arrangements are structurally unsustainable. They have to be adjusted, but not fundamentally altered. He does not believe the seniors and members of the middle class have to suffer significantly in the course of these adjustments. The approach he outlined Wednesday mostly shields these groups from cuts, even if Congress can’t reach a deal on deficit-cutting and a fiscal trigger kicks in.

Obama does not believe in relying on market mechanisms to reduce health care costs. Instead, he would rely mostly on a board of technical experts, who would be given power to force their recommendations upon Congress.

Obama believes that tax increases on the rich have to be part of a fiscal package. His approach claims to contain $3 in cuts for every $1 in taxes, but if you count these things the way a normal person would, it’s closer to 1 to 1. Finally, Obama believes that government investments in research and infrastructure nurture broad-based prosperity.

Personally, I agree with Ryan on items 1-3 and with Obama on items 4 and 5, and I think an acceptable package could be put together to reconcile these views. But I do not believe there is any chance this will happen in the current climate. What’s going to happen is this: We’re going to raise the debt ceiling in a way that fudges the issues. Then we’re going to have an election featuring these rival viewpoints, and Obama will win easily.

Well, we’ll see.

Here’s Paul Krugman opining in the same NYT editorial section, “Who’s Serious Now?“:

The president’s proposal isn’t perfect, by a long shot. My own view is that while the spending controls on Medicare he proposed are exactly the right way to go, he’s probably expecting too much payoff in the near term. And over the longer run, I believe that we’ll need modestly higher taxes on the middle class as well as the rich to pay for the kind of society we want. But the vision was right, and the numbers were far more credible than anything in the Ryan sales pitch.

I doubt that Dr. K speaks for all Americans when he says “pay for the kind of society we want.”

We’re going to find out what kind of society we want when voters go to the polls in November 2012.

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