Opinion

Obama's morning in America

If President Obama has his way on the budget, or most of it, history will write of three political revolutions in this country in a little less than a century—Roosevelt’s, Reagan’s and Obama’s.

Unlike the New Deal, which for all the freneticism of the First Hundred Days, actually unfolded in stages, with Social Security waiting until Roosevelt’s third year, Barack Obama moved last week on every front. He took a page from the Reagan Revolution, when a conservative President moved all the elements of a radically new agenda simultaneously. Obama is not only unwinding Reagan’s policies, he is offering a Rooseveltian paradigm that justifies big government pragmatically—by arguing that what matters is not the size of government, but how it works.

In advancing that project, the tactics may become even more Reaganesque; the President’s advisers won’t rule out overcoming the 60-vote barrier in the Senate by reverting to so-called “reconciliation” legislation, which isn’t subject to filibuster. It’s out of the ordinary and the Republicans will scream—but Reagan did it. It is possible for Obama to make his revolution with a majority in the House and just 50 votes plus Biden, the constitutional tie-breaker, in the Senate.

And it is a revolution. Beyond the headlines about trillions of dollars, record deficits, and the emergence of Rush Limbaugh as de facto leader of the Republican Party, there is the sweeping scope of the Obama program and the very real likelihood that—yes, he can—most of it will be written into the laws and life of America. The architecture of change is breath-taking; in Newt Gingrich’s view, Obama’s budget represents the “European socialist” model, a cliché that combines two of the right’s preferred slurs. (They desperately need a new Bill Buckley to supply some originality, wit and thought.)

Obama’s new America will be very American, a reach for enduring values of equality, opportunity and economic justice. But it will also be very different.

In energy, a new “cap and trade” system on carbon emissions will auction off permits for pollution and provide $150 billion to research and invest in renewable energy. The Republicans, predictably, will attack this as a tax, relying on the incapacity of voters to note that it’s offset by $65 billion a year in middle class tax cuts. The big change, however, is that America will not only move from laggard to leader on climate change, Obama is proposing to leave behind the entrenched carbon-based economy and rely on American ingenuity—yes, Newt, financed by your disdained public sector—to create a cleaner, more self-sufficient economy and the “green” jobs of the 21st Century.

At the same time the President has asked for $634 billion in a reserve fund for health care reform. He’s conducting a summit on Thursday to begin laying out the details. He’ll welcome all the stakeholders, from labor unions to insurance and pharmaceutical companies. He’d like to enlist them in supporting a comprehensive plan, just as he’d welcome oil industry involvement in alternative fuels. But they must show a willingness to compromise. Drug companies, for example, will have to discount for bulk purchases under the Medicare prescription drug program. This isn’t a technical detail; it’s part of how you pay for universal access to health coverage. We’ll hear all the scare stories again, but the president has moved early enough to fight back and win. The 60 votes in the Senate will be found—or gotten around. And after 60 years of struggle, health care will finally be a right, not a privilege in America.

Third, in education, especially higher education, the president has called for sweeping changes that, so far, have hardly broken the surface of public attention. When Senator John F. Kennedy first proposed (and passed) college student loans, he had to justify them in the Sputnik era as essential to national defense. It wasn’t an easy sell. Now this President is demanding wholesale change. The Pell Grant program, which offers scholarships to poor and middle class students, will no longer be an annual appropriation, subject to cuts; it will be an entitlement on the order of Social Security, with more than $5,000 a year guaranteed to every eligible student. In all but name, this establishes a right to higher education. Instead of subsidizing banks to provide students loans, Obama wants the government to do it; this will save taxpayers billions in subsidies and save students billions in interest charges. The change will bring college loans to nearly three million more students.

There’s one place where the Obama Revolution is relatively modest. His tax increases on the wealthy will raise hundreds of billions of dollars, but he’s merely restoring the top rates to their level under Bill Clinton, when the wealthy did just fine—and then some. One Republican Representative, Tom Price, lied on the television talk show circuit last weekend, accusing Obama of “remov[ing] the ability to make charitable contributions tax deductible.” In fact, the cutback here is modest, too, so for top rate taxpayers, the deduction will be worth what it was under—well, Ronald Reagan.

Similarly, it will be difficult for the other side to assail the president for simultaneously raising the military budget a little—and restraining it a lot. He will trim or cancel a number of weapons systems; but it’s Robert Gates, the Bush Defense Secretary who Obama shrewdly persuaded to stay, who’s presiding over this change. Obama has bluntly announced: “We’re not paying for cold war-era weapons we don’t use.”

Obama will have to deal with some members of his own party who don’t like his plan to limit farm subsidies to agribusiness. And there’s even one Democratic Governor, Phil Bredesen of Tennessee, who’s joined a few Neanderthals on the other side in saying he may turn down some stimulus funds for extended unemployment compensation. Bredesen is a very wealthy man who doesn’t take a salary as Governor; maybe he thinks other people don’t need one either.

On the whole, however, Democrats in Congress have been remarkably united so far. If they stay that way, the Republicans may jeer and the Limbaughs may sneer and smear—but it won’t matter. Today, it’s the Obama Revolution. By 2012, it will be Obama’s Morning in America.

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