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President Obama Offers Moral Vision, Faith Leaders Must Press For More

Faith leaders in the United States should applaud President Obama for offering a moral vision for the nation while carefully monitoring how the White House and Congress proceed.
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President Obama outlined his plans for dealing with the economy today. In large part, he has let the GOP set the terms of the debate about America's economic future since the mid-term elections of 2010. Today, in a speech at George Washington University, the president sought to recapture his leadership position by offering a progressive vision of a new American future -- a stark contrast to the GOP's dark budget proposals that would leave the elderly without health care, millions of vulnerable people (many children) without food stamps and massive cuts in public education. President Obama offered a moral vision of what America should be. Consider his opening words:

From our first days as a nation, we have put our faith in free markets and free enterprise as the engine of America's wealth and prosperity. More than citizens of any other country, we are rugged individualists, a self-reliant people with a healthy skepticism of too much government.

But there's always been another thread running through our history -- a belief that we're all connected, and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation. We believe, in the words of our first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, that through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves.

And so we've built a strong military to keep us secure and public schools and universities to educate our citizens. We've laid down railroads and highways to facilitate travel and commerce. We've supported the work of scientists and researchers whose discoveries have saved lives, unleashed repeated technological revolutions, and led to countless new jobs and entire new industries. Each of us has benefitted from these investments, and we're a more prosperous country as a result.

Part of this American belief that we're all connected also expresses itself in a conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security and dignity. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff may strike any one of us. "There but for the grace of God go I," we say to ourselves. And so we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment insurance, which protects us against unexpected job loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, those with disabilities. We're a better country because of these commitments. I'll go further. We would not be a great country without those commitments.

For Christians, many of whom have been frustrated with the Congress and President Obama, these words are uplifting. President Obama put the common good front and center in a debate that until now has largely centered around extending tax cuts to the super wealthy while cutting vital programs that protect the social fabric of our society. Economist Paul Krugman, often a critic of the president, even offered some praise for this speech. Still missing, however, is any mention of the president's 2008 campaign promise of cutting poverty in half over the course of the next decade. We can assume from his remarks and the proposals put forth by Congress that poverty will continue to remain at record levels unless the economic recovery exceeds all expectations. We are also left to wonder how much the president is willing to compromise away. Is this speech a line in the sand or a negotiating starting point?

Because the Obama plan relies on budget cuts for two-thirds of its deficit reduction measures, it goes dangerously far in two areas. It calls for $360 billion in cuts in mandatory programs other than Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. The large budget-cut target for this part of the budget risks leading to substantial cuts in core programs for low-income Americans, our most vulnerable people. To the President's credit, his plan states that "reforms to mandatory programs should protect and strengthen the safety net for low-income families and other vulnerable Americans." And the Bowles-Simpson plan enunciates the same basic principle. But to achieve $360 billion in savings in this part of the budget without cutting programs for low-income families and thereby increasing poverty and hardship will require very tough choices that entail confronting powerful special-interest lobbyists to a degree that neither party has proved capable of doing in the past.

In re-affirming his 2008 campaign promise to end the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans -- tax cuts the president agreed to extend as part of a compromise reached with the GOP right before Christmas -- he set the terms for the upcoming presidential election. Today President Obama said: "We cannot afford $1 trillion worth of tax cuts for every millionaire and billionaire in our society. We can't afford it. And I refuse to renew them again." These tax cuts for the super rich drive up the deficit and rob Americans of investments in public education and other essential services that can lift up the nation.

The agenda offered up by President Obama is not the Kingdom of God, far from it. But it is a moral agenda set directly alongside proposed cuts in spending that are deeply immoral and a new budget blueprint from U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan that would fundamentally alter the social contract Americans now have with their government. Children and the elderly would bear the burden of Ryan's plans. Now we have two very different visions of America to debate.

Faith leaders in the United States should applaud President Obama for offering a moral vision for the nation while carefully monitoring how the White House and Congress proceed.