What Obama Should Say to the Nation

Posted in: Constitutional Law

After having agreed to a budget-slashing deal with no tax increases as the price of securing Republican acquiescence in raising the debt ceiling, President Obama has been roundly criticized by progressive Democrats for having failed to put up a fight.  In a particularly incisive analysis, psychologist Drew Westen contrasted President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s use of the bully pulpit with Obama’s passivity, suggesting that the latter may be a kind of character flaw.

Based on my knowledge of the President from our time together as law students, I doubt that he is incapable of going on the offensive.  Accordingly, I have taken the liberty of drafting a stump speech.  I hereby license the President to use any or all of the following, with or without attribution:

My fellow Americans,

When I decided to run for the Presidency barely halfway into my first term as a United States Senator, lots of folks in politics said that it wasn’t yet my turn, that I hadn’t paid my dues, or that I wasn’t seasoned enough.  There was some truth to all of that, but I ran anyway, because I thought that I had something to offer that this country desperately needed and wanted:  A burning desire to solve America’s problems and move past the culture wars and the bitter ideological divides of the past.  I said in 2004 that there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s only the United States of America.  I still believe that.

Now, I know that to most people outside of Washington, it looks like the partisan divide is more bitter than ever.  And maybe in Washington that’s true.  But when I look across the country—and even when I listen to my critics in both parties—I find that we really aren’t divided over most of the fundamentals.  We actually agree about a whole lot.

We all agree that even two years into what the experts tell us is a recovery, the economy remains feeble.  Far too many people out there either can’t find a job, are afraid of losing their jobs, or are so discouraged that they’ve given up on looking for a job.

I know there are a lot of Americans out there who are angry about how the government has responded to the economic crisis of the last three years.  But here’s the thing:  That’s not a point of disagreement, either.  Progressive Democrats and Tea Party Republicans are all mad as hell about the fact that Congress, President Bush, and the Federal Reserve made hundreds of billions of dollars available to banks and big businesses, while millions of Americans lost their homes.  Even the politicians who supported these measures saw them as, at best, a necessary evil.  I know that’s how I felt when, as a Senator, I went along with both Republicans and fellow Democrats in giving bipartisan support to the bank bailout.

We all agree, as well, that over the long run, America can’t continue spending twice as much on medical care as other developed countries, while achieving no better outcomes.  The sheer cost in dollars threatens to bankrupt the government, and the human cost is incalculable.

Most of us also agree that America cannot, and should not, be the world’s policeman.  Our brave men and women in uniform have performed magnificently over the last decade.  But we do not honor their sacrifice by spilling still more blood, unless we have clear, achievable goals and a vital national interest.  There was a time when Americans disagreed over whether sending our troops into battle in Afghanistan and Iraq was sensible policy, but increasingly, we are in agreement that it is time to bring them home.

Here too, the human considerations are paramount, but the dollar costs add up as well.  Putting aside Social Security, which is separately funded, the largest items in the federal budget are the military, and Medicare and Medicaid.  If we bring those costs down, we go a long way towards solving the debt problem.

So if most of us in Washington agree on the problems, why can’t we agree on solutions?  The answer boils down to a fundamental disagreement over the issue of how much the wealthiest Americans ought to pay in taxes.  Democrats and Republicans both want to keep taxes on the middle-class at their current levels, but we Democrats think that in addition to cutting government spending, revenues need to be increased a bit.

I have consistently said that I would like to close corporate tax loopholes and that I would also like to see tax rates for individuals earning over $200,000 and couples earning over $250,000 go back to what they were in the 1990s.  But the Republicans have fought me tooth and nail on my plan to ask those who benefit the most from prosperity to pay their fair share.  First, the Republicans threatened to shut down the government.  And then they threatened to default on the government’s debt—for the first time in the nation’s history.

Why is that?  If you listen to my Republican friends, they’ll tell you that in these tough economic times, they don’t want to raise taxes on “job creators.”  That’s a nice line, but it’s really nothing more than a line.  Republicans are for lower taxes on the wealthy at all times.  They chose to cut taxes at the end of the Clinton years, when the economy was still booming, and they want to keep them low now, while the economy is sputtering.

No, the truth is that the modern GOP cares more about keeping taxes down on the wealthy than it cares about just about anything else.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed by statistics, so I’ll just give you two quick examples.

Here’s the first one:  A wealthy family that is taking home a million dollars per year saves about a hundred thousand dollars per year in taxes from the Bush tax cuts, while a middle-class family taking home forty thousand dollars per year saves about nine hundred dollars per year from those same tax cuts.  These savings don’t just favor the wealthy when viewed in absolute terms:  A hundred thousand versus nine hundred.  They overwhelmingly favor the wealthy as a percentage of income, too:  Ten percent versus a mere two and a half percent.

The perpetuation of the tax cuts that President Bush gave to the wealthiest Americans has at least as much to do with the deficit as military spending, spiraling medical costs, and the economic downturn.  And yet, my Republican friends are fiercely committed to preserving those tax cuts for the wealthy.  Again, the question is why?

It’s a real puzzle, isn’t it?  After all, most of the folks who vote for Republicans aren’t wealthy.

Well, I think the answer becomes clearer if you follow the money—and by money, I mean spending on election campaigns.

That brings me to my second statistic.  There are nine Justices on the Supreme Court.  Five of them were appointed by Republican Presidents, and four of them were appointed by Democratic Presidents.  On a lot of issues, they’re unanimous.  Sometimes they divide in unexpected ways.  But there’s one pretty consistent split, and that’s in cases involving laws that restrict the use of money to influence elections.

You may have heard of the Citizens United case from early last year.  That’s the one where five Republican appointees said that a corporation could spend as much of its money as its officers and directors choose, in order to promote a candidate whom the corporation likes.

I want to be clear that I don’t think the Justices in the majority of the Citizens United case acted unethically.  But I do think that they got it badly wrong and—this is the important point—they got it wrong because the modern Republican Party has become so intertwined with the interests of big money, that they sincerely think that corporations’ right to influence elections is part of the Constitution.

Just last week, the Republican former Governor of Massachusetts insisted over and over that corporations are people.  Well, if you’ve made a fortune helping corporations earn profits by firing real people, I can understand how you might think to yourself that a corporation is a person.  But if you’re one of the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs in the last few years, you probably have a different view.

If we want to change the way Washington does business, first we need to change the way that big business influences Washington.  That’s why I’m calling on all Americans to support a constitutional amendment making clear that laws imposing reasonable limits on the influence of money in politics are permissible.  Lots of other democratic countries have such limits, and they work just fine.

But getting a constitutional amendment ratified takes time, and I know that far too many of you are hurting right now.  In the short run, the government’s most potent weapon is to put Americans back to work directly.  So I’m calling on Congress to send block grants to the states to hire or retain a million police officers, firefighters, teachers, and other public employees whose jobs have been cut because of shrinking state and local revenues.  These hard-working middle-class Americans will spend their paychecks on essential goods and services in their communities, and thus kickstart the private sector by boosting demand from local merchants.  Just allowing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans to expire will more than pay for this program.

I don’t expect many of my Republican friends to go for this proposal, but I still have hope that they may change their minds.  I’ll be talking about these proposals a lot in the coming weeks and months, and I hope that you’ll keep the pressure on your elected representatives.

I could be wrong.  Maybe most Americans really would prefer that the federal government keep giving three million dollars a year to each of the richest hundred-twenty-thousand people in the country, rather than using some of that money to invest in creating and sustaining jobs in our communities.  If that’s how you feel, then do nothing.

But if you agree with me, now is the time to speak up.  Democracy can only be bought if we let it be.  Won’t you join me in telling Congress that the United States of America is not for sale?

Good night, God bless you, and may God bless America.

6 responses to “What Obama Should Say to the Nation”

  1. Gareth Smith says:

    Bigger Government is not the answer, it’s what got us into this mess to begin with.
    Your above missive is so full of holes and glittering generalities as you attempt to solve the problems started by the FDR administration is pathetic.
    It’s like a script from a bad Hollywood movie trying to glean a happy ending from a nightmare.

    We need solid reforms to the way the Government spends money like implementation of the Fair Tax, abolish the IRS, doing away with redundant Government programs, and the list could go on and on as you well know.

    If revenue was based on the health of the economy rather than the seeking of power, we would be much better off.

    The People need to ween themselves from the Government Teat because they are only sucking themselves dry.

    I’m fairly sure you will not understand any of this because you’re still expecting that Knight in Shining Armor to come riding over the crest of the mountains and save everything.

    • Phil88 says:

      Okay, so Guantanamo Bay, energy and agricultural subsidies, the war on drugs, the Iraq war, the war in Afghanistan, corporate subsidies, tax loopholes, the DEA, the Department of Homeland Security (redundant, given the extreme multiplicity of security/intelligence agencies), expensive seniors’ prescription health benefits, medicare, medicaid, welfare, social security, most of the work of the CIA abroad, ICE (beyond basic border patrol), subsidies to states, bailouts to all businesses, banks, investment firms, the Post Office, the US Patent office, the Federal Communications Commission, tax breaks and subsidies for religious groups and institutions (including churches), tax breaks for political donations, and so on should all be cut since there are people of different political stripes who view them as unnecessary and superfluous expenditures.  This would be a truly bi-partisan solution that would ensure minimal federal government intervention in people’s lives.

      The problem with your approach is that it only targets things Republicans and right-wingers dislike.  If we get rid of everything that Democrats dislike and think superfluous, then we can truly have a small, limited federal government, rather than a corporate-owned, Republican pro-war military playground.  Fair is fair, after all.

  2. Gareth Smith says:

    The best thing Obama should say to the Nation is: “I hereby tender my resignation, effective immediately”.

  3. Anonymous says:

    A very well thought out speech , the President should endorse

  4. shanen says:

    Good piece, and much better than any speech I’ve heard President Obama make recently, but… The two main things that bother me are (1) that angry fanatics make their votes count more than reasonable people, and (2) that it’s the least ethical businessmen who spend the most on politicians. The majority isn’t silent. They’ve just been pushed completely out of the picture. The proposed Constitutional Amendment should ban gerrymandering, too, since that’s the method used to negate most votes before they are ever cast.

  5. shanen says:

    Regard Smith’s comment about bigger government, if you are sincere about disliking big government, then FIRST you must advocate for smaller companies, especially the largest corporations.

    I should note that the result of laws written by corrupt professional politicians working for the least ethical businessmen is that the American legal system basically requires companies to become evil to survive. Rather than rewarding cancerous growth, the laws should encourage companies to divide and reproduce. That would actually INCREASE our freedom by giving us more meaningful choices. (Best example I can think of right now is Microsoft’s choice-based advertising campaigns when the reality is that Microsoft is working hard to remove your choices before you ever buy a computer.)