Civility Watchdog: Obama Caricatures Ryan’s Plan

In his April 13, 2011, speech laying out a plan to reduce the federal budget deficit and the national debt, President Barack Obama spent a lot of time caricaturing his opponents. In particular, he derided Rep. Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” 2012 budget proposal. Let’s look at a few quotes:

=>“These aren’t the kind of cuts you make when you’re trying to get rid of some waste or find extra savings in the budget. … These are the kind of cuts that tell us we can’t afford the America that I believe in and I think you believe in. I believe it paints a vision of our future that is deeply pessimistic. It’s a vision that says if our roads crumble and our bridges collapse, we can’t afford to fix them; if there are bright young Americans who have the drive and the will but not the money to go to college, we can’t afford to send them. … we are presented with a vision that says the American people, the United States of America, the greatest nation on Earth, can’t afford any of this.”

This is a misrepresentation. Ryan isn’t saying we shouldn’t or can’t fix roads or educate children. He’s saying we should spend less money on these things, or at least spend it more effectively. If I propose huge increases in spending on roads and education, and Obama says, “We can’t afford that,” is it fair to come away saying, “Obama says we can’t afford to fix roads, teach kids, or any of this“? Of course not. Likewise, Ryan and Obama disagree about what dollar amount we can afford, but Obama is caricaturing this as a disagreement about whether we should fix roads and educate children at all.

=>“This vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America.”

This is the “true aim” accusation. Republicans, Obama says, aren’t really interested in reducing the deficit. Their real goal is more sinister.

=>“There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And I don’t think there’s anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it That’s not a vision of the America I know. The America I know is generous and compassionate. It’s a land of opportunity and optimism. Yes, we take responsibility for ourselves, but we also take responsibility for each other, for the country we want and the future that we share.”

In Obama’s view, it’s not that Obama and Republicans have a disagreement on how to achieve certain goals: The issue is that Republicans aren’t serious, courageous, generous or compassionate. This is derisive name-calling. Unfortunately, this is standard fare in Obama’s speeches. He’s often said that Republicans believe in Social Darwinism, that they believe it’s wrong to help the needy, and just a year ago he said that Republicans have no sense of neighborliness or community and aren’t willing to look out for one another.

=>“I will preserve these health care programs as a promise we make to each other in this society. I will not allow Medicare to become a voucher program that leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry, with a shrinking benefit to pay for rising costs. I will not tell families with children who have disabilities that they have to fend for themselves. We will reform these programs, but we will not abandon the fundamental commitment this country has kept for generations.”

This is a distortion. Ryan isn’t proposing that we give up on these commitments. He, like Obama, wants to reform Medicare and Medicaid so that they don’t go bankrupt and disappear altogether (and so that they don’t bankrupt the U.S. government). Nobody’s walking away the needy entirely.

It’s not clear how he can ask Republicans to work with him while he demonizes and distorts them so consistently.