WASHINGTON – Under pressure from the Republicans, President Obama offered a broad vision Wednesday for solving the nation’s long-term fiscal problems. This was not a speech about dollars and cents as much as it was an appeal for Americans to think about what kind of country they want and how they define shared sacrifice.

Obama’s address left many questions unanswered, but there was no doubt that the president and his White House advisers regarded it as one of the most important political speeches he will make in his second two years in office. It was an effort to regain the offensive in a debate that will dominate budget negotiations for the rest of this year and will probably shape the choices voters face in the 2012 presidential election.

Obama appeared to have two goals in mind. First, he sought to demonstrate that he is serious about solving the debt and deficit problems that threaten the country’s fiscal future. Second, he needed to prove to Democrats that he is prepared to take on the Republicans and fight for policies that his party long has stood for.

The question is whether he can do both.

In the recent negotiations over funding the government for the rest of this fiscal year, Obama gave considerable ground, at least in the overall size of the spending cuts. His concessions alarmed many Democrats, who fear that he will continue to yield to the GOP in the future. Wednesday’s speech was an effort to say that there are lines he will not cross in the coming talks over raising the debt ceiling and over future budgets.

The president has been on the defensive for weeks in the budget debates in Washington, and his hand was called when House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., announced his long-term fiscal blueprint last week. In responding, Obama laid down clear markers that established profound differences in governing philosophy.

Obama said the GOP proposal offers worthy goals for stabilizing the budget, but he took sharp exception to the path the Republicans would follow. “The way this plan achieves those goals would lead to a fundamentally different America than the one we’ve known, certainly in my lifetime,” he said. “In fact, I think it would be fundamentally different than what we’ve known throughout our history.”

Obama charged that the Republicans would threaten the social compact that long has governed society. What he hopes to prove is that that compact can be maintained while stabilizing the government’s fiscal condition. By all the old rules of politics, Obama would appear to be on solid ground in many of his arguments. He said he will oppose Republican proposals to turn Medicaid into a block grant to the states and to sharply limit the amount of money the government spends for health care for poor people. He said he is against turning Medicare into a voucher program, as Ryan’s blueprint proposes, even though some Democratic deficit-reduction plans move somewhat in that direction.

Both of those stances have proved to be winning arguments in past political debates, but it’s not clear this time whether Obama has a real plan for saving enough money in Medicare to assure its future financial solvency.

The president also called for cuts in the Pentagon budget, which Ryan’s plan does not touch.

His sharpest distinction with the Republicans came over taxes. Republicans insist that the deficit should be reduced without raising taxes. Obama renewed his call to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, drawing heavy criticism from the opposition in the GOP.

Polls show strong support for taxing the rich, just as they show opposition to cutting Medicare.

 


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