Changing the Tone in Washington

My fellow Americans,

I ran for president to do two things -- to change the tone of bitter partisanship in Washington, and to accomplish constructive economic change so that more Americans can share the blessings of prosperity.

I need to speak candidly to you tonight. Despite my best efforts, I find that I cannot do both things. You see, it takes two to compromise.

I understand why many Americans voted against my party -- the Democrats -- last November. Recovery from the worst recession in 75 years was, and is, too slow.

It's understandable that many people who had high hopes in 2008 felt those hopes dashed in 2010. The president's party normally loses some seats in his first off-year election, especially in hard economic times, and these times have been more difficult than most.

Those of you who voted for the opposition had every right to do so. But the vast majority of Americans did not vote to slash public spending on children, university students, the elderly, the disabled, the sick, and people who are unemployed through no fault of their own. You did not vote to blame the recession on nurses, teachers, police and fire-fighters or to punish them for the sins of Wall Street.

The budget debate that has dominated the headlines has emphasized numbers -- mind numbing numbers. Will Congress cut $70 billion dollars, or $50 billion dollars, or $100 billion dollars? But let me tell you, this budget debate is not just about numbers.

It's about whether kids who are eligible for Head Start are denied places in the classroom. Whether community health centers shut down. Whether students who want a chance to go to college are denied Pell Grants. Whether our families have safe drinking water and pure food. Whether Americans who are unemployed through no fault of their own lose their health insurance. And whether the most affluent Americans get still more tax cuts.

Although the Republican Party is increasingly captured by the Tea Party, I just don't believe most Americans voted for these slash and burn cuts that will only harm our economy.

We have done our best to find a middle ground. But the opposition party keeps moving the goal posts on us.

No sooner do we come to terms over a compromise to keep the government open than the price goes up. The price of keeping the government, it turns out, is to cripple the government and the services that it provides. Deep cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are next.

Well, not while I'm president. I am here to say tonight that we are not going to balance the budget on the backs of kids, or elderly Americans, or sick people, or working families.

Last December, we reluctantly compromised with the Republicans in order to extend unemployment insurance and help working Americans in other ways. Their price was two more years of tax cuts for the very wealthiest of Americans. The cost was over $125 billion -- or more than the cost of spending cuts now being demanded.

Frankly, if anyone should be tightening their belts in these circumstances, it is the most fortunate among us. But the increase in the deficit caused by those tax cuts is now being used as the pretext to slash government help to everyone else.

That's not right. So don't make the mistake of thinking that this debate is about who has the sharpest knife for cutting deficits. It's about how we cut deficits, about whose belt is to be tightened, and how we get the economy back on track.

If the Republicans had been sincere about wanting to hold down deficits, they never would have demanded those tax giveaways as their price for aiding the unemployed.

Not only are the Tea Party Republicans demanding crippling cuts in public services. They have also larded up the budget bill with so called riders that have nothing do with the budget.

They would ban funding for the new bureau of consumer financial protection, and other regulatory agencies charged with keeping banks from repeating the abuses that got us into this mess.

They would ban funding for the Affordable Care Act, meaning insurance companies once again could deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.

They would prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating toxic substances like mercury, Dioxin, and arsenic in certain industries.

They would block the Department of Education from cracking down on well documented abuses on the part of for-profit colleges that deceive hard working students and their parents.

They would get rid of federally-funded family planning services, which also includes screening for breast and cervical cancer.

Most Americans do not support these policies. And as much as I want compromise and civility in Washington, I am not a damned fool.

Americans deserve to know just how extreme these ideas are. And if the far right wants to threaten to shut down the government if we don't accept these radical ideas, that's a fight I'm prepared to have.

So I will continue my efforts to change the tone in Washington. But sometimes that requires firmness in the face of reckless destruction.

I want you to know, this is not about the "partisan bickering" that the press loves to decry. The far right is trying to show its supporters that it can be tough enough to shut down the government. But I can be just as tough on behalf of working American families, who have already suffered enough.

This is the leader I thought I was voting for. Judging by his performance so far, I was wrong.

Obama's tactics could be one way for him to win re-election. He puts himself above party, hangs progressive Democrats out to dry, and lets Republican recalcitrance move the political center further and further to the right. When he eventually gets a budget deal, it doesn't matter to him that it is mostly on Republican terms. He wins points for keeping the government open.

This seems to be the preferred strategy of top White House political strategist David Plouffe and chief of staff Bill Daley. The bounce in the polls that Obama enjoyed in the aftermath of a craven tax cut deal is used as the object lesson in the value of the president as compromiser in chief.

But that bounce has pretty well evaporated. Obama's approval-disapproval ratings are now about dead even again. However, if you want to identify a set of policies that are opposed by margins of three or four to one, try the Tea Party package.

There is another way for Obama to win, by showing some toughness, standing up for principle, and exposing the sheer extremism of the Tea Party capture of the Republicans.

Can he work up the nerve? It would certainly change the tone in Washington.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His latest book is A Presidency in Peril.