Washington – President Obama decided this week to raise the stakes in this fall’s election by making the choice about something instead of nothing but anger.
In the process, he will confront a deeply embedded media narrative that sees a Republican triumph as all but inevitable. Paradoxically, such extravagant expectations may be the GOP’s biggest problem — by raising the bar for what will constitute success, and by discouraging necessary strategic adjustments should our newly combative president begin to alter the political battlefield.
Until Obama’s Labor Day speech in Milwaukee and his Cleveland-area statement of principles on Wednesday, it was not clear how much heart he had in the fight, or whether he’d ever offer a comprehensive argument for the advantage of his party’s approach over the other’s.
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In the absence of a coherent case, Republicans were winning by default on a wave of protest votes. Without this new effort at self-definition, Obama was a blur: a socialist to conservatives, a sellout to some progressives, and a disappointment to younger Americans who wondered what happened to the ebullient, hopeful guy they voted for.
That’s why the Milwaukee-Cleveland one-two punch mattered. The first speech showed Obama could fight and enjoy himself in the process. The second speech spelled out why he’s chosen to do battle.
The news headline was Obama’s decision to draw the line on George W. Bush’s tax cuts. He would continue the most economically stimulative cuts for families earning under $250,000 a year but say no to extending the rest of the tax cuts which, as Obama noted, “would have us borrow $700 billion over the next 10 years to give a tax cut of about $100,000 to folks who are already millionaires.” What do Democrats stand for if they are not willing to take on this cause?
But even more, Wednesday’s speech in Parma, Ohio, saw Obama speaking openly about the philosophical underpinnings of his presidency by way of explaining where he would lead the country.
“I’ve never believed that government has all the answers to our problems … ,” Obama said. “But in the words of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, I also believe that government should do for the people what they cannot do better for themselves.” And then he offered examples of what that meant, highlighting programs Americans actually believe in, as an antidote to empty and abstract anti-government rhetoric.
Suddenly, there’s a point to this election. Obama is late to this game, but at least he’s finally playing it.
The New Obama (or, rather, the resurrected Old Obama) will be up against a media story line whose self-sustaining quality was brought home by the treatment of Gallup poll findings over the last two months.
The media largely ignored a mid-July survey giving Democrats a six-point lead, then devoted huge blocks of print and airtime to last week’s Gallup survey dramatizing conventional wisdom by showing Republicans ahead by a whopping 10 points — only to have Gallup come out this week with a poll showing Republicans and Democrats tied. All this raises the question of whether the only polls that matter are the ones that reinforce preconceptions.
Even Democrats concede a Republican sweep may be in the cards. But there is another possibility: that we are now at the Republican peak, and that Democrats are in a position to claw back enough support to hang on to both houses of Congress.
Republican voters simply can’t get more enthusiastic without violating the law by casting multiple ballots. Democrats, on the other hand, have a large swath of yet-to-be motivated sympathizers. For Republicans, the costs of Tea Party extremism are beginning to balance the benefits of the movement’s energy.
Republican pollster David Winston thinks the economy has given his party “an enormous opening,” but he cautions against seeing the contest as over and done with. As a technical matter, he argues that likely voter screens applied by pollsters too early exclude a disproportionate number of voters in key Democratic constituencies.
And the economic debate Obama tried to reframe this week, Winston said, “is going to have an impact. It’s not enough for Obama to be wrong. If Republicans want to get to a majority, they have to lay out where they want to go.”
Yes, Republicans had better start defining themselves. If they don’t, Obama, who labeled them the party of “stagnant growth, eroding competitiveness and a shrinking middle class,” is now happy to do it for them. And that’s what changed in Milwaukee and Cleveland.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
(c) 2010, Washington Post Writers Group
The White House released the following remarks on the economy that President Barack Obama delivered this afternoon in Ohio.
Good afternoon, Ohio. It’s good to be back.
In the fall of 2008, one of the last rallies of my presidential campaign was here in the Cleveland area. It was a hopeful time, just two days before the election. We knew that if we pulled it off, we’d have the chance to tackle some big and difficult challenges that had been facing this country for a long time.
We also hoped for a chance to get beyond some of the old political divides – between Democrats and Republicans, Red states and Blue states – that had prevented us from making progress. Because although we are proud to be Democrats, we are prouder to be Americans – and we believed that no single party has a monopoly on wisdom.
That’s not to say that the election didn’t expose deep differences between the parties. I ran for President because for much of the last decade, a very specific governing philosophy had reigned about how America should work:
Cut taxes, especially for millionaires and billionaires. Cut regulations for special interests. Cut trade deals even if they didn’t benefit our workers. Cut back on investments in our people and our future – in education and clean energy; in research and technology. The idea was that if we had blind faith in the market; if we let corporations play by their own rules; if we left everyone else to fend for themselves, America would grow and prosper.
For a time, this idea gave us the illusion of prosperity. We saw financial firms and CEOs take in record profits and record bonuses. We saw a housing boom that led to new homeowners and new jobs in construction. Consumers bought more condos and bigger cars and better televisions.
But while all this was happening, the broader economy was becoming weaker. Job growth between 2000 and 2008 was slower than it had been in any economic expansion since World War II – even slower than it’s been over the past year. The wages and incomes of middle-class families kept falling while the cost of everything from tuition to health care kept rising. Folks were forced to put more debt on their credit cards and borrow against homes that many couldn’t afford in the first place. Meanwhile, a failure to pay for two wars and two tax cuts for the wealthy helped turn a record surplus into a record deficit.
I ran for President because I believed that this kind of economy was unsustainable – for the middle-class and for our nation’s future. I ran because I had a different idea about how America was built – an idea rooted in my own family’s story.
You see, Michelle and I are where we are today because even though our families didn’t have much, they worked tirelessly – without complaint – so that we might have a better life. My grandfather marched off to Europe in World War II and my grandmother worked in factories on the home front. I had a single mom who put herself through school, and would wake before dawn to make sure I got a decent education. Michelle can still remember her father heading out to his job as a city worker long after Multiple Sclerosis had made it impossible for him to walk without crutches.
Yes, our families believed in the American values of self-reliance and individual responsibility, and they instilled those values in their children. But they also believed in a country that rewards responsibility. A country that rewards hard work. A country built upon the promise of opportunity and upward mobility.
They believed in an America that gave my grandfather the chance to go to college because of the GI Bill. An America that gave my grandparents the chance to buy a home because of the Federal Housing Authority. An America that gave their children and grandchildren the chance to fulfill our dreams thanks to college loans and college scholarships.
It was an America where you didn’t buy things you couldn’t afford; where we didn’t just think about today – we thought about tomorrow. An America that took pride in the goods it made, not just in the things it consumed. An America where a rising tide really did lift all boats, from the company CEO to the guy on the assembly line.
That’s the America I believe in. That’s what led me to work in the shadow of a shuttered steel plant on the South Side of Chicago when I was a community organizer. It’s what led me to fight for factory workers at manufacturing plants that were closing across Illinois when I was a Senator. It’s what led me to run for President – because I don’t believe we can have a strong and growing economy without a strong and growing middle-class.
Now, much has happened since that election. The flawed policies and economic weaknesses of the previous decade culminated in the worst recession of our lifetimes. My hope was that the crisis would cause everyone, Democrats and Republicans, to pull together and tackle our problems in a practical way. But as we all know, things didn’t work out that way.
Some Republican leaders figured it was smart politics to sit on the sidelines and let Democrats solve the mess. Others believed on principle that government shouldn’t meddle in the markets, even when the markets were broken. But with the nation losing nearly 800,000 jobs the month I was sworn in, my most urgent task was to stop a financial meltdown and prevent this recession from becoming a second depression.
We’ve done that. The economy is growing again. The financial markets have stabilized. The private sector has created jobs for the last eight months in a row. And there are roughly three million Americans who are working today because of the economic plan we put in place.
But the truth is, progress has been painfully slow. Millions of jobs were lost before our policies even had a chance to take effect – a hole so deep that even though we’ve added jobs again, millions of Americans remain unemployed. Hundreds of thousands of families have lost their homes; millions more can barely pay the bills or make the mortgage. The middle-class is still treading water, while those aspiring to reach the middle class are doing everything they can to keep from drowning.
Meanwhile, some of the very steps that were necessary to save the economy – like temporarily supporting the banks and the auto industry – fed the perception that Washington is still ignoring the middle class in favor of special interests.
And so people are frustrated and angry and anxious about the future. I understand that. I also understand that in a political campaign, the easiest thing for the other side to do is ride this fear and anger all the way to Election Day.
That’s what’s happening right now. A few weeks ago, the Republican leader of the House came here to Cleveland and offered his party’s answer to our economic challenges. Now, it would be one thing if he admitted his party’s mistakes during the eight years they were in power, and was offering a credible new approach to solving our country’s problems.
But that’s not what happened. There were no new policies from Mr. Boehner. There were no new ideas. There was just the same philosophy we already tried for the last decade – the same philosophy that led to this mess in the first place: cut more taxes for millionaires and cut more rules for corporations. Instead of coming together like past generations did to build a better country for our children and grandchildren, their argument is that we should let insurance companies go back to denying care to folks who are sick, and let credit card companies go back to raising rates without any reason. Instead of setting our sights higher, they’re asking us to settle for a status quo of stagnant growth, eroding competitiveness, and a shrinking middle class.
Cleveland – that is not the America I know. That is not the America we believe in. A lot has changed since I came here in those final days of the last election, but what hasn’t is the choice facing this country. It’s still fear versus hope; the past versus the future. It’s still a choice between sliding backward and moving forward. That’s what this election is about. That’s the choice you’ll face in November.
I have a different vision for the future. I’ve never believed that government has all the answers to our problems. I’ve never believed that government’s role is to create jobs or prosperity. I believe it’s the drive and ingenuity of our entrepreneurs, the skill and dedication of our workers, that has made us the wealthiest nation on Earth. I believe it’s the private sector that must be the main engine of our recovery.
I believe government should be lean, it should be efficient, and it should leave people free to make the choices they think are best for themselves and their families, so long as those choices don’t hurt others.
But in the words of the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, I also believe that government should do for the people what they cannot do better for themselves.
That means making long-term investments in this country’s future that individuals and corporations cannot make on their own: investments in education and clean energy; in basic research, technology, and infrastructure
That means making sure corporations live up to their responsibilities to treat consumers fairly and play by the same rules as everyone else; to look out for their workers and create jobs here at home.
And that means providing a hand up for middle-class families – so that if they work hard and meet their responsibilities, they can afford to raise their children, send them to college, see a doctor when they get sick, and retire with dignity and respect.
That’s what we Democrats believe in – a vibrant free market, but one that works for everybody. That’s our vision for a stronger economy and a growing middle-class. And that’s the difference between what we and the Republicans in Congress are offering the American people right now.
Let me give you a few specific examples of our different approaches. This week, I proposed some additional steps to grow the economy and help businesses spur hiring. One of the keys to job creation is to encourage companies to invest more in the United States. But for years, our tax code has actually given billions of dollars in tax breaks that encourage companies to create jobs and profits in other countries.
I want to change that. Instead of tax loopholes that incentivize investment in overseas jobs, I’m proposing a more generous, permanent extension of the tax credit that goes to companies for all the research and innovation they do right here in America. And I’m proposing that all American businesses should be allowed to write off all the investment they do in 2011. This will help small businesses upgrade their plants and equipment, and will encourage large corporations to get off the sidelines and start putting their profits to work in places like Cleveland and Toledo and Dayton.
To most of you, this is just common sense. But not to Mr. Boehner and his allies. For years, Republicans have fought to keep these corporate loopholes open. In fact, when Mr. Boehner was here in Cleveland he attacked us for closing a few of these loopholes – and using the money to help states like Ohio keep hundreds of thousands of teachers and cops and firefighters on the job. He dismissed these jobs – teaching our kids, patrolling our streets, rushing into burning buildings – as quote “government jobs” – jobs that I guess he thought just weren’t worth saving.
I couldn’t disagree more. I think teachers and police officers and firefighters are part of what keep America strong. And I think if we’re going to give tax breaks to companies, they should go to companies that create jobs in America – not those that create jobs overseas. That’s one difference between the Republican vision and the Democratic vision. And that’s what this election is all about.
Let me give you another example. We want to put more Americans back to work rebuilding America – our roads, railways, and runways. When the housing sector collapsed and the recession hit, one in every four jobs lost were in the construction industry. That’s partly why our economic plan has invested in badly needed infrastructure projects over the last nineteen months – not just roads and bridges, but high-speed railroads and expanded broadband access. Altogether, these are projects that have led to thousands of good, private sector jobs, especially for those in the trades.
Mr. Boehner and the Republicans in Congress said no to these projects. Fought them tooth and nail. Though I should say that didn’t stop a lot of them from showing up at the ribbon-cutting ceremonies and trying to take credit. That’s always a sight to see.
Now, there are still thousands of miles of roads, railways, and runways left to repair and improve. And engineers, economists, governors and mayors of every political stripe believe that if we want to compete, we need to rebuild this vital infrastructure. There’s no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains or the most modern airports – we want to put people to work building them right here in America. So this week, I’ve proposed a six year infrastructure plan that would start putting Americans to work right away. But despite the fact that this has traditionally been an issue with bipartisan support, Mr. Boehner has so far said no to infrastructure. That’s bad for America – and that too is what this election is about.
I’ll give you one final example of the differences between us and the Republicans, and that’s on the issue of tax cuts. Under the tax plan passed by the last administration, taxes are scheduled to go up substantially next year. Now, I believe we ought to make the tax cuts for the middle class permanent. These families are the ones who saw their wages and incomes flatline over the last decade – and they deserve a break. And because they are more likely to spend on basic necessities, this will strengthen the economy as a whole.
But the Republican leader of the House doesn’t want to stop there. Make no mistake: he and his party believe we should also give a permanent tax cut to the wealthiest two percent of Americans. With all the other budgetary pressures we have – with all the Republicans’ talk about wanting to shrink the deficit – they would have us borrow $700 billion over the next ten years to give a tax cut of about $100,000 to folks who are already millionaires. These are among the only folks who saw their incomes rise when Republicans were in charge. And these are folks who are less likely to spend the money, which is why economists don’t think tax breaks for the wealthy would do much to boost the economy.
So let me be clear to Mr. Boehner and everyone else: we should not hold middle class tax cuts hostage any longer. We are ready, this week, to give tax cuts to every American making $250,000 or less. For any income over this amount, the tax rates would go back to what they were under President Clinton. This isn’t to punish folks who are better off – it’s because we can’t afford the $700 billion price tag. And for those who claim that this is bad for growth and bad for small businesses, let me remind you that with those tax rates in place, this country created 22 million jobs, raised incomes, and had the largest surplus in history.
In fact, if the Republican leadership in Congress really wants to help small businesses, they’ll stop using legislative maneuvers to block an up-or-down vote on a small business jobs bill that’s before the Senate right now. This is a bill that would do two things: cut taxes for small businesses and make loans more available for small businesses. It is fully paid for, and it was written by Democrats and Republicans. And yet, the other party continues to block this jobs bill – a delay that small business owners have said is actually leading them to put off hiring.
Look, I recognize that most of the Republicans in Congress have said no to just about every policy I’ve proposed since taking office. And on some issues, I realize it’s because there are genuine philosophical differences. But on issues like this one, the only reason they’re holding this up is politics, pure and simple. They’re making the same calculation they made just before the inauguration: if I fail, they win. Well, they might think this will get them where they need to go in November, but it won’t get our country where it needs to go in the long run.
So that’s the choice, Ohio. Do we return to the same failed policies that ran our economy into a ditch, or do we keep moving forward with policies that are slowly pulling us out? Do we settle for a slow decline, or do we reach for an America with a growing economy and a thriving middle-class?
That’s the America we see. We may not be there yet, but we know where this country needs to go.
We see a future where we invest in American innovation and American ingenuity; where we export more goods so we create more jobs here at home; where we make it easier to start a business or patent an invention; where we build a homegrown, clean energy industry – because I don’t want to see new solar panels or electric cars or advanced batteries manufactured in Europe or Asia. I want to see them made right here in America, by American workers.
We see an America where every citizen has the skills and training to compete with any worker in the world. That’s why we’ve set a goal to once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. That’s why we’re revitalizing our community colleges, and reforming our education system based on what works for our children – not what perpetuates the status quo.
We see an America where a growing middle-class is the beating heart of a growing economy. That’s why I kept my campaign promise and gave a middle-class tax cut to 95% of working Americans. That’s why we passed health insurance reform that stops insurance companies from jacking up your premiums at will or denying you coverage just because you get sick. That’s why we passed financial reform that will end taxpayer-funded bailouts; reform that will stop credit card companies and mortgage lenders and Wall Street banks from taking advantage of taxpayers and consumers.
That’s why we’re trying to make it easier for workers to save for retirement, and fighting the efforts of some in the other party to privatize Social Security – because as long as I’m President, no one is going to take the retirement savings of a generation of Americans and hand it over to Wall Street.
That’s why we’re fighting to extend the child tax credit, and make permanent our new college tax credit. Because if we do, it will mean $10,000 in tuition relief for each child going to four years of college.
And finally, we see an America where we refuse to pass on the debt we inherited to the next generation.
Now, let me spend a minute on this issue, because we’ve heard a lot of moralizing on the other side about it. Along with tax cuts for the wealthy, the other party’s main economic proposal is that they’ll stop government spending.
Of course, they are right to be concerned about the long-term deficit – if we don’t get a handle on it soon, it can endanger our future. And at a time when folks are tightening their belts at home, I understand why a lot of Americans feel it’s time for government to show some discipline too.
But let’s look at the facts. When these same Republicans – including Mr. Boehner – were in charge, the number of earmarks and pet projects went up, not down. These same Republicans turned a record surplus that Bill Clinton left into a record deficit. Just this year, these same Republicans voted against a bipartisan fiscal commission that they themselves proposed. And when you ask them what programs they’d actually cut, they usually don’t have an answer.
That’s not fiscal responsibility. That’s not a serious plan to govern.
I’ll be honest – I refuse to cut back on those investments that will grow our economy in the future – investments in areas like education and clean energy and technology. That’s because economic growth is the single best way to bring down the deficit – and we need these investments to grow. But I am absolutely committed to fiscal responsibility, which is why I’ve already proposed freezing all discretionary spending unrelated to national security for the next three years. And once the bipartisan fiscal commission finishes its work, I will spend the next year making the tough choices necessary to further reduce our deficit and lower our debt.
Of course, reducing the deficit won’t be easy. Making up for the 8 million lost jobs caused by this recession won’t happen overnight. Not everything we’ve done over the last two years has worked as quickly as we had hoped, and I am keenly aware that not all our policies have been popular.
So no, our job is not easy. But you didn’t elect me to do what’s easy. You didn’t elect me to just read the polls and figure out how to keep myself in office. You didn’t elect me to avoid big problems. You elected me to do what’s right. And as long as I’m President, that’s exactly what I’ll do.
This country is emerging from an incredibly difficult period in its history – an era of irresponsibility that stretched from Wall Street to Washington and had a devastating effect on a lot of people. We have started turning the corner on that era, but part of moving forward is returning to the time-honored values that built this country: hard work and self-reliance; responsibility for ourselves, but also responsibility for one another. It’s about moving from an attitude that said “What’s in it for me” to one that asks, “What’s best for America? What’s best for all our workers? What’s best for all our businesses? What’s best for our children?”
These values aren’t Democratic or Republican. They aren’t conservative or liberal values. They’re American values. As Democrats, we take pride in what our party has accomplished over the last century: Social Security and the minimum wage; the GI Bill and Medicare; Civil Rights and worker’s rights and women’s rights. But we also recognize that throughout history, there has been a noble Republican vision as well, of what this country can be. It was the vision of Abraham Lincoln, who set up the first land grant colleges and launched the transcontinental railroad; the vision of Teddy Roosevelt, who used the power of government to break up monopolies; the vision of Dwight Eisenhower, who helped build the Interstate Highway System. And yes, the vision of Ronald Reagan, who despite his aversion to government, was willing to help save Social Security for future generations.
These were serious leaders for serious times. They were great politicians, but they didn’t spend all their time playing games or scoring points. They didn’t always prey on people’s fears and anxieties. They made mistakes, but they did what they thought was in the best interest of their country and its people.
That’s what the American people expect of us today – Democrats, Independents, and Republicans. That’s the debate they deserve. That’s the leadership we owe them.
I know that folks are worried about the future. I know there’s still a lot of hurt out here. And when times are tough, I know it can be tempting to give in to cynicism and fear; to doubt and division – to set our sights lower and settle for something less.
But that is not who we are, Ohio. Those are not the values that built this country. We are here today because in the worst of times, the people who came before us brought out the best in America. Because our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were willing to work and sacrifice for us. They were willing to take great risks, and face great hardship, and reach for a future that would give us the chance at a better life. They knew that this country is greater than the sum of its parts – that America is not about the ambitions of any one individual, but the aspirations of an entire people and an entire nation.
That’s who we are. That is our legacy. And I’m convinced that if we’re willing to summon those values today; if we’re willing again to choose hope over fear; to choose the future over the past; to come together once more around the great project of national renewal, then we will restore our economy; rebuild our middle-class; and reclaim the American Dream for the next generation.
Thank you, God Bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America.