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Professor Obama’s Teachable Moment

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Posted on Nov 14, 2010

By Ruth Marcus

The predictably childish reactions of the left and right to the budget blueprint unveiled by the co-chairs of President Obama’s debt commission offer the president a chance to play a role to which he may be uniquely suited: the grown-up in the room.

The co-chairs’ proposal has put Obama in an exquisitely awkward situation. He is laboring under the pressure to embrace or reject controversial ideas without enjoying the comforting shelter of bipartisan consensus. This was not the result, or the rollout, that the White House wanted. But it has created the potential space for Obama to carve out the post-partisan presidential identity he so far has been unable or unwilling to assert.

This assignment, if he chooses to accept it, won’t be easy. It would be politically perilous. After all, if children had the vote, their first instinct would not be to elect their parents, or for that matter, any grown-up—even if they know, deep down, that they need adult supervision. It will require intensive—let’s be blunt, remedial—voter education about the necessary trade-offs. And this must, finally, be followed by presidential willingness to take the risk of laying out in detail what he believes those trade-offs should be, because the deficit commission isn’t going to do it for him.

Easy for a columnist to advise, perhaps, but, let’s face it, Mr. President, that electoral map isn’t looking too inviting. And haven’t you always said you don’t want to be just another can-kicker?

The time is ripe. Voters know instinctively that, much like their own households, the country can’t continue to live so far beyond its means. What they don’t understand, because no politician has been willing to tell them straight out, is that fixing this situation counsels, if not mandates, a balanced approach of tax increases and spending cuts. The budget fairy isn’t going to magically solve the problem by tucking a trillion or two under the national pillow.

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This means telling each side what it doesn’t want to hear. Conservatives must accept that tax increases need to be on the table to achieve fiscal stability, but be mollified that this change can be accomplished in a way that encourages economic growth. Liberals must accept that promised entitlement benefits are not affordable and must be pared back, but be assured that this adjustment can be done in a way that maintains or even enhances protections for the most vulnerable.

The country is, I think, mature enough to grasp that message. Voters’ anxiety about the fiscal picture signals their receptiveness to considering that solutions will not be pain-free. But their learning curve is going to have to be steep.

A poll conducted by the centrist Democratic group Third Way earlier this year illustrates the existing chasm in popular understanding between budgetary reality and politician-enabled delusion. Fully three-fourths of those polled said they believed that the budget could be balanced without raising taxes. The same number said the budget could be balanced without touching Social Security and Medicare. Assuming the minimum overlap, that means half are still clinging to illusions of the budget fairy snipping away at waste, fraud and abuse and sprinkling magic growth dust on the economy.

Which is where the president should come in, wearing his professor Obama hat and channeling his inner Ross Perot, complete with charts. This work shouldn’t wait for the budget to come out next February. It shouldn’t wait for the State of the Union address next January. The White House should be speed-writing the lesson plan now, and the class should start right after the deficit commission races—or, more likely, limps—to what is apt to be a fractured and unsatisfying conclusion.

I propose a weekly seminar, perhaps 15 minutes, made available to the networks in the same way as the president’s weekly video address, and available at any time online, with links to budget documents and proposals and an interactive build-your-own budget feature to illustrate the cost of various trade-offs.

Surely someone could build the iPad app. Heck, invite in dissenting guest lecturers—professor Paul Ryan, the blackboard is yours—to make the opposing case.

Because the more voters understand the unforgiving arithmetic of budget choices and the looming disaster that inaction invites, the more they will understand the childishness of the extremes on both sides. And the more they will crave and, ultimately, reward, presidential leadership.

Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)washpost.com.

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group


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By aacme88, November 18, 2010 at 10:25 pm Link to this comment

You think this country is mature enough for a “grown-up” solution, eh? And that solution includes a “post-partisan presidential identity he has been unwilling or unable” to achieve so far? You think we should be “compromising” on issues long since compromised almost out of existence, like continuing all Bush tax cuts is somehow now called in the media a compromise.
Obama has sold out his base on every major issue attempting to “reach out” to a Republican minority that refuses to play. They see their course of action, as they did with Clinton, as shutting down the government, allowing nothing positive to happen, then using their vast propaganda machine to blame it on Obama and the Dems. And so far it’s working.
So much for the country being mature enough.

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By Inherit The Wind, November 17, 2010 at 12:42 pm Link to this comment

How can anyone expect sanity, when a new Rep TP Congressman is coming in vowing to repeal the Health Care plan and then fusses that his OWN FREE HC plan, as a Congressman, doesn’t start until a month after he takes office?

In the face of such typical radical hypocrisy, rationality is lost.

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By andermac, November 17, 2010 at 12:12 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What’s the use of posting a comment here? I posted yesterday here and it was accepted into system. Post my comments, or are you just slaves to the system and pretend to care? Idiots!

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By bogi666, November 16, 2010 at 2:09 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If you are a black person you go to jail for having dog fights,Michael Vick, or for lying to congress, Marion Jones. If you are a Wall St. criminal and steal $trillions and/or create illegal wars with lies which kills millions mostly women, children, other civilians which account for 90% of war casualties you’re never indicted, questioned and get a pension, write books to justify your being sociopathic and psychopathic conduct and deny all responsibility because “god told me and/or Satan made me do it but I’m not responsible” GW Bush who with complete disdain and disregard for the population of the world by killing them without remorse and that he was appointed by god to be President as did Ivan the Terrible who also declared he was appointed by god to govern Russia.

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By Hotrod, November 15, 2010 at 10:56 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Childish reaction on the Left is all you need to read to know this is not a journalist writing.  This is a right wing apologist for maintaining the status quo of the Predator Class continuing to financialy rape and pillage the rest of us.

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By mdgr, November 15, 2010 at 6:53 pm Link to this comment

Interesting, Mr. Scheer just censored my post. Took it down, in fact, sometime after it has been posted.

In it, I stated the obvious.

This article and most others on TD play to the fiction of the “glorious center.”  I further stated that it is Mr. Scheer who hand-selects the articles. I further linked it to a pattern of deflection wherein he and others like him (Karlin at Buzzflash, Mrs. Huffington too) say one thing while doing another.

He says he deplores the two party system, for example, yet he implicitly triangulates his features so as to keep that two party system constantly bickering and all but fixed in place.

Articles usually speak to why the R’s are “worse” and the Dems are supposedly “better,” and while TD has Mr/ Sirota and Hedges to add some balance to the mix, most of the selections are as tepid and implicitly condescending as this article.

Thus it is not yet time to outgrow childish things on TD, but time to call progressives childish.

I further stated that it seems time for the community to hold Mr. Scheer and Mrs. Huffington accountable for speaking out both sides of their mouth. I also questioned why they would do that.

This is the first time I have ever been censored on TD. My guess is that it will not be the last.

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By frang, November 15, 2010 at 3:22 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Judging by this piece, Ruth Marcus is not center to center-right, but hard right.  Various well-respected economists from Krugman to Baker to Galbraith have called on the President to stop his assault on what remains of our safety nets, yet Marcus, who has a background in journalism (if anyone can call what she writes “journalism” and not heavily rightward-skewed prop pieces), thinks that we should accept cuts to Social Security and health care. Although SS funds NEVER were part of the general revenue available for federal budgets, Marcus thinks that in a country with 22.5% real unemployment cuts to SS, Medicare and Medicaid are the grown-up thing to do.

I came to this site today to read Chris Hedges.  I’m confused as to why Marcus is even published on your site.

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By G.Anderson, November 15, 2010 at 11:59 am Link to this comment

This piece of trash, will be just one of many in a long series of pickings from the land fill, justifying, more gutting of the middle class for the plutocracy. Ruth Marcus is just another tool.

The big lie, is that American’s have been living beyond their means and now the bill is due, this is a lie.

This lie is being told over and over again, not because its true, but because the plutocracy wants more of your money.

At this point the value of wages has been steadily falling for the last 50 years, 42 million American’s qualify for food stamps..The Number of people no longer in the work force set an all time high, 21 percent of children in the US are living below the poverty level, and one in 6 Americans are on some sort of government anti poverty assistance.

When your starving, and can’t support yourself on your income, then of course your living beyond your means.

But how we got here, is not because American’s are bad, borrowing money, racking up their credit cards, in a manic episode of greed and hedonism..

Hell no, it’s because they can’t feed themselves, or pay rent, because the God Dam corporations, and the government they own, has destroyed every legal protection that workers used to have, cut wages, send jobs by the millions over seas, and imported workers by millions at lower wages.

Then after they destroyed the tax base, they allowed huge multinational corporations like GE, to weasel out of paying any corporate taxes at all.

The government, both Republican and Democrat, spend money like a drunken John in a whore house.

Now that they’ve bankrupted the country they’ve started eyeing social security, and whats left of the safety net. Cause their Jonesing and they don’t have any money for the dealer.

But economic polcy’s that favor Americans, here in the good old USA, will never be tried because, the people of this country no longer matter to their own government.  Watching the people starve, and shuffle about with their shopping carts filled with dirty rags that pass for clothing, has become so boring and tedious to those who own this country.

We are America’s untouchables, and of course because we’re poor, then we must be worthless.

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By blueworld, November 15, 2010 at 11:15 am Link to this comment

I wanted to watch Prof. Krugman on Sunday but no sooner had you opened your maw than I found myself disgusted & switched channels.  I think it’s remarkably childish to prefix every statement with a sneer about how childish everyone else is.  This combined with your references to fairies, children voting & the grown-ups in the room make you sound like a Day Care Worker.  I feel obligated to tell you what you need to hear.

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By ElkoJohn, November 15, 2010 at 10:17 am Link to this comment

Wall Street and their childish right want profits at any cost and ‘‘tinkle’’ down
economics.
The childish left wants peace, justice and a fair & equitable economic system.
President Obama and the leadership (committee chairs, big funders)
of the Democratic Party say: ‘‘Help us help Wall Street fix America’‘
Who’s the adult in the room ??

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By dogdiva, November 15, 2010 at 9:14 am Link to this comment

I’m surprised that Ruth Marcus is on this site so often.  She is predictably center to center right.  It’s fine to showcase the opposition, but I didn’t know that was the mission of Truthdig. I’ve never considered that she had much intellectual power.  You’ve got to give her credit for her opening salvo though. 

“The predictably childish reactions of the left and right to the budget blueprint unveiled by the co-chairs of President Obama’s debt commission offer the president a chance to play a role to which he may be uniquely suited: the grown-up in the room.”

One assumes Ms. Marcus sees herself and the president as the only grown ups in the room.  It’s just so “grown up” to cast any opposing view as infantile. It really keeps the conversation going.

Am I the only one who’s noticed the rush from conservative Dems and pundits to genuflect at the mention of either Pete Peterson or any draconian slash and burn policy?  Some can’t get on board fast enough.  It isn’t necessary to think about it…just go for the deepest, darkest cuts anyone suggests and apparently you get invited to sit at “the grown ups table”.

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By genia, November 15, 2010 at 9:08 am Link to this comment

WHY is the 600 BILLION (not counting Afghanistan & Iraq expenditures)  annual
budget of the military industrial complex
not even MENTIONED in “Professor Obama’s Teachable Moment” Article?

This omission is surprising in a publication that strives do to do better than this.

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By thethirdman, November 15, 2010 at 2:42 am Link to this comment

Got to agree with mrfreeze.  This meltdown was a symptom of our idiocracy not
the cause.  We have been willfully ignorant for so so long.  We are a funny lot,
starting from the very beginning with our city on the hill, we have been living on a
different planet from the rest of our neighbors.  We will get what we deserve, and
it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

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mrfreeze's avatar

By mrfreeze, November 15, 2010 at 2:03 am Link to this comment

For all of you who believe “we hand nothing to do with the meltdown….” Well my dear fellow Americans, we have plenty to answer for:

1) Allowing GWB to be appointed by the Supreme Court the 1st time AND THEN VOTING HIM IN FOR A 2ND TERM. Could the American people have been more absurd.
2) Americans have had it far too easy for the last 40 years. Living on credit and “PRETENDING” to be wealthier has been nothing more than a long party no-one was prepared to pay for. Now the bill has come due.
3) Indeed, the corporate criminals have played their part in causing a world of trouble, BUT Americans have done a very good job of vilifying their neighbours (who worked for all those evil Unions and wanted a part of the American dream).
4) Americans have also become addicted to cheap goods and services. Why pay each other a decent wage when we can, by voting with our dollars, give corporations the opportunity to acquire labour at a discount.

I could go on and on with this….........and the funny thing is, I’m a liberal. I looked over the recommendations of the deficit commission chairmen and, frankly, I like the fact that it puts all the sacred cows out there on the table. It’s going to force the Republicans and Tea Party (nit-wits) to put their money where their mouths are.

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By Queenie, November 15, 2010 at 12:08 am Link to this comment

They will get my Social Security only when they take it from my cold dead hands.

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By morongobill, November 14, 2010 at 10:55 pm Link to this comment

Oh yes, the talking heads and pundits have now got their marching orders. Got to get the people to see the wisdom of “hard” budget choices. As the first commenter said above, we the people had nothing to do with the meltdown, it ain’t our damn fault.

And what a joke, Obama channeling, what, his inner coward? I bet you if all the old folks rose up right now, in anger at his transparent ploy to cut social security, he’d run like a turkey, as my old pappy used to say.

His problem is, nothing went according to the plan. He stacked the deck with flea- bitten blue dogs, repubs, and deficit hawks, only about 1 on the committee was a real friend of social security; he obviously hoped that they would put out a near unanimous report recommending cuts, and his 2 handpicked stooges, bowles and million tits Simpson, couldn’t get any consensus at all, and released the report early hoping to force people to go along.

I say to hell with the Deficit Commission and Obama and all these talking heads, that are willing to toss out the one program in the federal government that is successful, with a 2.5 TRILLION DOLLAR SURPLUS, to hell with them, they’ll cut our social security last, after they chop every damn thing else including the military and the politicians salaries.

Thank God, I and others like me are descended from the greatest generation, the rich and the elites, want a fight, they’ll get it on this issue.

And the damn dumbocrats, better look in the mirror, we don’t need anymore democrats who are in fact, really republicans in donkey costumes.

I say make support of social security a litmus test for the dumbocrats and Obama. This program has been the sorry assed political hacks slush fund long enough.

It is time at long last to make the democrats stand up and say who they stand for, the rich or the rest of us poor taxpayers.

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By eir, November 14, 2010 at 9:23 pm Link to this comment

So, the Nutty professor should drink his magic potion and be the cool, rational adult that lays down the law for we, the naughty, ignorant children?

Here’s the response of a real adult to our little professor: Perfect Political Marriage

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By Mark, November 14, 2010 at 9:22 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Just read her bio by clicking on her name at the top of the column. It’ll tell you all you need to know.

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By ocjim, November 14, 2010 at 9:08 pm Link to this comment

Ruth,
Simpson and Bowles are two old farts whose ideas belong in the early twentieth century. The point is why wouldn’t Obama choose two gents like Krugman and Robert Reich whose progressive ideas give more credence to the majority of Americans and to the real science of economics.

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By eagle bill, November 14, 2010 at 7:08 pm Link to this comment

Why should the people who had nothing to do with the meltdown bear the brunt of the “austerity”. Why shouldn’t there be trials of Dimon, Blankfein, Lewis and the other corporate criminals? They are all subject to the RICO statutes which outlaw ongoing criminal conspiracies like the Mafia. They should get life imprisonment plus forfeiture of assets like regular Mafia dons.

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