What Needs to Be in President Obama’s Big Speech on America’s Future


    This Wednesday, President Obama will be delivering a major speech on “the scale of debt reduction he thinks the country needs so we can grow economically and win the future – a balanced approach.” That sounds promising, although I agree with Steve Benen about the danger of falling into the Teahadists’ obsessive – and narrow – focus on the debt, per se, and also on “spending” per se. In fact, neither are the main problems this country faces. In addition, I agree with Benen that the last thing Obama wants to do is start negotiations somewhere vaguely in “the middle,” as we’ve seen over and over again how that ultimately moves closer to the Teapublican position. Instead, here are some of the main items I think President Obama needs to be talking about in his speech:

    1. President Obama should lay out an overall progressive vision for this nation’s future, not just on reducing the accumulated debt and projected deficits (side note: the news media couldn’t use these two different terms correctly if their lives depended on it), but also on how America can “win the future” economically.

    2. President Obama’s approach needs to start, first and foremost, with rolling back pretty much everything (wrong) done on fiscal policy by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Cumulatively, what Reagan and Bush did was to make America’s tax code far less progressive (or, to put it the other way, far more REGRESSIVE) than it had been since the days of FDR. What President Obama should do is return America to a steeply progressive tax code, both on paper and in practice. Today, after 16 years of Reagan and Bush, not to mention radical ideologues like Newt Gingrich, it is neither.

    3. We need to roll back the Bush tax cuts. Period. That will save us $4 trillion over the next decade, and will also move the tax code back in a sharply progressive direction. Do it!

    4. Here is a chart of historical, marginal tax rates from 1913 to 2011.  Note that they ranged from 70% to 94% from 1940 to 1980, before they were slashed, starting with President Reagan, to as low as 28% (today, they are 35%). Those rates need to go back up.

    5. America needs to invest heavily in its future. President Obama should lay out ambitious objectives on transitioning our energy economy away from 19th and 20th century dirty fuels, on building a first-class transportation system, on putting a price on carbon and other crucial “externalities,” and on investing in our people through lifelong educational excellence and world-class health care for all Americans as a fundamental human right (right now, we only have that for the wealthy and possibly those with “Cadillac” health insurance plans).

    6. President Obama should make the case for building on health care reform, at the minimum by adding a strong public option, at the maximum by moving towards a single-payer health system and away from the healthcare-for-profit (if you’re lucky to receive health care at all!) system we’ve got now. In doing so, the goal should be both to provide high-quality health care to all Americans, and also to reduce the growth in health care costs which is bankrupting us as individuals and as a nation. Both elements are crucial.

    7. We need an honest conversation about how large a military we need and what our national security/foreign policy goals should be in coming years. Right now, we’re overstretched in terms of our commitments versus our ability to afford those commitments. We need to deal with that, either through sharply cutting back on our commitments (which could be a big mistake in terms of our national interests) or increasing our capacity to meet them (e.g., via mandatory national service and/or raising taxes to pay for the military we want/the wars we choose to fight).

    8. President Obama should propose ditching “corporate welfare” of all kinds, whether to the dirty energy sector, the Big Agribusiness sector, whatever. That’s a complete waste of money, actually counterproductive to our nation’s needs, and something we simply can’t afford.

    9. Finally, we should have a serious, frank discussion about “entitlements” in general — what is their purpose? who should receive them? how much should people of various income levels receive? should the payroll tax cap be lifted so that rich people pay their fair share (yes!), should the retirement age be lifted and by how much, etc.

    Those are a few items that spring to my mind in terms of President Obama’s upcoming speech (feel free to “revise and extend” in the comments section). In sum, what I’m looking for is a completely different vision, a proudly and strongly progressive one, than the reckless, regressive, counterproductive approach by Paul Ryan and the Teapublicans. Will President Obama do it? I’m not holding my breath, but he certainly should. What do you think?


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