Originally published in POLITICO
There is the conservative critique of Barack Obama that contends that he has grown the size and scope of government too much; then there is the liberal charge that he has moved to the middle and forfeited the progressive moment. The first is more true, the second more stinging to an administration that believes it is on the verge of breaking the political right.
There is a third case, however, that is tied not to a theory of how big or small government should be but to the idea that a leader has obligations to speak with precision and clarity about the nature of the country’s burdens. By that elusive standard, the famously slippery Bill Clinton still fares well on an issue like welfare reform, where he reminded his base that an entitlement that penalizes work is a social disaster. Jimmy Carter, for that matter, deserves points for an energy policy that meant to cap the rising dependence on foreign oil at 1978 import levels, which had future presidents stuck to his efforts, would have us paying $2.25 at the gas pump.
President Obama gets low marks on the precision and the clarity scale when he outlines a budgetary vision that treats Medicare and Social Security as asterisks and not the biggest driver of deficits, and trusts the future of Medicare in particular to the old trope of going after “waste, fraud and abuse.” He gets similarly low marks when his defense of healthcare reform channels Newt Gingrich’s tirade about unelected judges trumping our venerable elected congressmen (whose job rating bats .100) And he gets barely passing grades on his case for the Buffett Rule, a kind of minimum tax for millionaires that would trim the deficit next year by the grand sum of a tenth of one percent while diminishing charitable giving much more.
There is a particular kind of cynicism in the Buffett Rule, given its fractional impact on spending and the small amount of money it frees up in a cavernous budget. It is a kind of “statement” politics that puts the president on record against the insulated rich without making much of any down-payment on narrowing the gap between the 99% and the 1%; to the contrary, the strategy disingenuously blames the inequality problem on the tax code rather than, say, the dropout rate, the educational quality gap, the persistent challenges in starting a small business, and the under-water home values that have cut down the step-ladder to wealth for most families.
The Buffett rule is easier to explain than a systematic push to boost up the middle class; for that matter, court-bashing and “Social Darwinism” (once racist inspired theories of genetic progress, now a short-hand for Republican plans to contain spending at Bill Clinton era levels) have the virtue of easy listening too. It’s been a long road from the lofty promises of new beginnings on a cold 2007 day in Springfield. Or maybe it’s just the “but” that follows “yes we can”.