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I Remember America

President Barack Obama returns to the Oval Office. (Photo: Pete Souza / White House)

It has not always been this way. Maybe we're all suckers for the down-the-memory-hole 24-hour news cycle nonsense that has afflicted this country for far too long already, because it is getting harder and harder to remember the simple fact that it has not always been this way.

This, however, is how it is now.

On Wednesday, the Democratic president of the United States will stand somberly before a bank of television cameras to announce the orderly annihilation of the social contract that has guarded and sustained the American people for generations. It was a Democratic president who created that contract, followed by other Democratic presidents who defended it, and now a Democratic president is choosing to undo it. Not all at once, of course. It will take time in the doing, but the downhill run to that dissolution begins tomorrow. According to the Wall Street Journal:

In a speech Wednesday, Mr. Obama will propose cuts to entitlement programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, and changes to Social Security, a discussion he has largely left to Democrats and Republicans in Congress. He also will call for tax increases for people making over $250,000 a year, a proposal contained in his 2012 budget, and changing parts of the tax code he thinks benefit the wealthy.

Until now, Mr. Obama has been largely absent from the raging debate over the long-term deficit. The White House has done little with the recommendations of its own bipartisan deficit commission. And Mr. Obama's 2012 budget didn't offer many new ideas for tackling entitlement spending, among the biggest long-term drains on the federal budget.

The White House move caught Democrats in Congress off guard, according to aides, and details of the president's proposals were sketchy. Mr. Plouffe said the president will name a dollar amount for deficit reduction, although the White House wouldn't provide specifics. Introducing taxes into the discussion has the potential to complicate the resolution of coming budget fights, specifically the need to raise the debt ceiling, a move needed to prevent the U.S. defaulting on its debt.

Republicans in congress greeted the news of Obama's upcoming speech with barely restrained glee, and chuckled into their sleeves over the idea that his proposed tax increase on rich people was anything other than dead on arrival. They have the president's pattern down pretty well now – he does some big talking at first, eventually concedes the argument by agreeing with most of what the GOP proposes, they double down by adding things like riders to eliminate Planned Parenthood, he blinks, and they get pretty much everything they want. We saw this pattern in last week's absurd brawl over a government shutdown, and with a fight over the debt ceiling looming over the horizon, the GOP knows full well that yet another victory is all but assured.

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How can it be that a Democratic president is willing to undo the great work of previous generations, to such a degree that he will be the one to propose it on Wednesday? Could this not be some kind of high-level, high-stakes chess game happening here? Anything is possible, I suppose, but when one looks deeply into the slate of brutal cuts agreed to in order to avert the shutdown last week, it becomes vividly clear that there are very few sacred cows presently safe from slaughter. The Washington Post reported:

More than half of the $38 billion in spending cuts that lawmakers agreed to last week in the 2011 budget compromise that averted a government shutdown would hit education, labor and health programs. Funding for federal Pell grants, job training and a children's health-care initiative would face cuts, senior congressional aides said. A multitude of other programs – from highway and high-speed rail projects to rural development initiatives – also would experience significant reductions.

The bill contains some policy provisions, including language preventing Guantanamo Bay detainees from being transferred into the United States for any purpose. And it eliminates funding for four Obama administration “czars,” whose positions had been vacant: the “health care czar,” “climate change czar,” “car czar” and “urban affairs czar.”

Republicans were able to terminate more than 55 programs in the areas of health, labor and education, resulting in a total savings of more than $1 billion. In addition, two minor components of President Obama's health-care law will be eliminated: the Consumer Operated and Oriented Plan and the Free Choice Voucher programs.

Although the pain would be felt across virtually the entire government – the deal includes a $1 billion across-the-board cut shared among all non-defense agencies – Republicans were able to focus the sharpest cuts on areas they have long targeted. The Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services departments, which represent about 28 percent of non-defense discretionary spending, face as much as a combined $19.8 billion, or 52 percent, of the total reductions in the plan.

In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency, long a target of conservatives, will see a $1.6 billion cut, representing a 16 percent decrease from 2010 levels. Key EPA programs include the Fish and Wildlife Services ($141 million cut from last year), the National Park Service ($127 million cut from last year) and “clean and drinking water state revolving funds” ($997 million cut from last year).

Indeed, included in Friday's deal were significant cuts to rural development, rental assistance programs, scientific and technical research, a broad swath of work by the Corps of Engineers, energy efficiency programs, renewable energy programs, defense environmental cleanup programs, community development programs, climate change programs, clean water programs, NEA programs, dislocated worker assistance, green jobs innovation programs, rural health programs, HIV/AIDS/viral hepatitis/STD and TB prevention, the LIHEAP contingency fund, literacy programs, AmeriCorps, high speed rail programs, community development funds, and a raft of foreign aid.

Absent from the debate is any meaningful discussion of the bloated defense budget and the three wars we are currently fighting. Our adventure in Libya has already cost nearly $700 million, and has yet to accomplish anything other than a bloody stalemate that looks to grind on interminably. Absent from the debate is any meaningful discussion of punitive actions – both financial and criminal – to be taken against the Wall Street and bank barons who delivered us to this damaged estate. Yes, Mr. Obama will discuss raising taxes on the wealthy on Wednesday, but those words are likely to be the only outcome in the end. If it was going to get done, it would have happened before this new congress arrived. Instead, the president surrendered again, and given the debt ceiling gun now being wielded by the GOP, any talk of raising those taxes will amount to nothing more than wind.

I remember America, and it has not always been this way.