By Joe Conason
So much for the “Grand Bargain”—or at least for the not-so-grand gutting of Social Security and Medicare that the “very serious” thought-leaders of Washington political and media circles have always found so appealing. Whatever President Obama may have contemplated up until now, his second inaugural address, delivered yesterday on the steps of the Capitol, bluntly repudiated Republican arguments against the social safety net—and forcefully identified those popular programs with the most sacred American values.
“We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity,” said Obama—not only because it is the responsibility we have to each other as human beings, but because security and dignity, for every man, woman, and child, are the existential foundations of freedom.
“For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn,” he said. “We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative. They strengthen us.”
In a modern nation, suggested the president, those commitments are indeed fundamental to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is essentially the same message articulated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his 1941 “Four Freedoms” State of the Union address, which included employment, social security and health care as defining aspects of a truly democratic society.
Every liberal and progressive (and presumably every conservative and wingnut, too) recognized that moment as renewing Barack Obama’s allegiance to principles that have sustained the Democratic Party since FDR. Far from undermining freedom, enterprise, and productivity, as right-wing propaganda insists, the president argued that those guarantees—still cherished by the overwhelming majority of Americans—have strengthened the nation.
Obama acknowledged the financial problem that rising health care poses for Medicare; eventually, he said, the federal budget must be stabilized, with “hard choices” ahead. Yet that objective will not be achieved, he pledged, by undoing the ligaments of security and liberty that American leaders have stitched together over the past century, nor by pitting younger people against their parents and grandparents (as the opponents of Social Security and Medicare habitually attempt to do). He pointedly rejected “the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.”
Precisely what the president means when he talks about hard choices should be revealed next month, when he will no doubt feel politically obliged to discuss how to reduce the deficit in his State of the Union address. Troubling signals have emanated from the White House that he might accept sharp and unnecessary cuts in Medicare and Social Security to achieve the “grand bargain”—which Washington’s conventional wisdom often defines as the only legacy worth pursuing for him.
Indeed, Obama has sometimes appeared to be listening when such very serious types, the over-privileged and under-informed, complain about burdensome “entitlements.” Those worthies might well have assumed that he would ultimately implement their mindless, heartless, and destructive proposals.
But in yesterday’s inspirational new beginning, this country’s 44th president set forth a very different expectation, promising hope and not disappointment to the people who re-elected him. The responsibility of his most devoted supporters will be to hold him true to it.
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