Without a doubt, one of the greatest moral debates going on in America today is the debate over the government budget.
Most on both sides of the political spectrum admit that we are living beyond our means; that the course we are on will undermine the economic future of our children and grandchildren. That’s immoral.
The road ahead will be extraordinarily difficult, because as President Obama said yesterday in his speech about the budget, most Americans “dislike [government spending] in the abstract, but they like what it buys.”
Ross Douthat, writing in the New York Times, explains the problems facing our leaders. “In periods of recession,” he writes, fortunate politicians “can budget for growth. Facing huge deficits, they can budget for austerity. In times of plenty, they can budget for upward mobility and equality of opportunity.”
But, Douthat concludes, “Our leaders are not so lucky: they somehow need to budget for all three goals at once.”
It’s a tough challenge, but I believe that President Obama has an opportunity to make history.
Let me explain. I was involved in the discussions in the inner circle of the White House about President Nixon going to communist China. He believed it was right to open relations with China and to avoid a Chinese-Soviet alliance that would have crushed the free world.
Given conservative antipathy towards China in Congress and elsewhere, Nixon knew that only a conservative, hard-line anti-communist could pull this off. No liberal president would dare move for better relations with China. Nixon acted boldly, took the heat from the conservatives, but did the right thing.
Fast forward 40 years. I wonder if only a liberal president can take the lead in solving our budget problems. Certainly Obama’s liberal credentials are impeccable, enough to withstand opposition from the liberal wing of his own party. Just as Nixon withstood the conservative pressures in his day.
Yesterday Obama flatly told members of his own party who oppose any cuts in government spending that they were wrong. “Our debt has grown so large,” the President said, “that we could do real damage to the economy” if we don’t begin now to “get our fiscal house in order.” Amen.
The question now will be how does he respond to the Republican plan crafted by Representative Paul Ryan? That’s a plan that takes the right approach -- not by arguing over specific programs and individual budget items, where special interests can overwhelm you, but by looking at the entire philosophy behind government. It’s our only hope, sharing in the suffering, one united stand.
Now, Obama’s public reaction to Ryan’s plan was decidedly negative. If that response is merely his opening salvo in negotiations, OK. At least both sides now have a starting point.
Barack Obama, strange as this will sound coming from me, could go down in history as one of our greatest presidents if he seizes the moment Nixon-style and becomes the liberal that took the lead in balancing the budget. Nobody could touch him in 2012. Nobody. It would be the greatest political stroke since Nixon went to China.
Does he have the courage to, as he said himself, “do the right thing”? The next few weeks will tell us. But he can’t wait too long.