President Barack Obama's State of the Union address and Rep. Paul Ryan's Republican response offer competing visions of the country.
For Mr. Obama, it is business as usual. Sunny days are ahead if only government continues its spending binge. A year ago the euphemism was "stimulus." Now it is "investment." Most of his hour-long speech was a paean to liberal activism, as the president called for redoubling outlays on high-speed rail and "countless" green energy jobs. His single concrete proposal about cutting spending was a five-year freeze on nondefense discretionary outlays. This follows last year's call for a three-year freeze that was never enacted.
The president's proposal would save $400 billion over 10 years. But that is on a federal budget that's increased 25% in two years, raising government's share of GDP to 25% from roughly 20%.
Freezing government at the current record levels is insufficient. And to their credit, Republicans have proposed cutting $100 billion from this year's budget. This would save $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years. The GOP already made a $42 billion down payment on their $100 billion in cuts from the president's budget by deep-sixing the Democratic omnibus bill during the lame-duck session.
In its new poll this week, Resurgent Republic (a group I helped form) found that voters believe by 61% to 31% that the federal government should be "spending less to reduce [the] deficit" rather than "spending more to help [the] economy." Yet the president continues to believe that we can borrow and spend our way to prosperity. This makes him look disconnected from spending, deficits and the debt—issues that most Americans now link to the nation's economic health.
Mr. Ryan's speech was a quarter the length of the president's, yet he devoted half again as many words (922) to the country's fiscal picture as did Mr. Obama (621). It was free of budget gimmicks, and he laid out in candid, unvarnished terms America's fiscal challenge.
By doing so, the Wisconsin congressman framed the discussion that will play out over the next year or two. He drew deeply from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to defend limited government. "Our nation is approaching a tipping point," Mr. Ryan said. "We still have time" to make vital changes, the Budget Committee chairman said, "but not much time." The challenge is about more than budgets and debt. It is about government's basic purposes and its role in our lives. If we don't act soon, the nature of American society will change in deep, lasting ways.
Mr. Ryan understands that the nation's fiscal imbalance cannot be repaired just by cutting nondefense discretionary spending (which makes up only $666 billion of this year's $3.5 trillion federal budget). More than $2 trillion of the budget consists of mandatory spending, and he knows that reforming these programs, especially Medicare, is the only path to fiscal sanity and economic growth. Otherwise America will face a crushing debt and huge tax increases.
Precisely when and how to reform and restrain mandatory spending remains to be seen—Mr. Ryan has his own ideas, outlined in his "Roadmap for America's Future." But the debate about the role and purpose of government has been joined in a way America hasn't seen in three decades.
Tuesday, Mr. Obama proclaimed the country was "poised for progress." In some anemic ways it is. But 142 million Americans were employed the day before Mr. Obama took office and 139 million are today. The total debt was $10.6 trillion before his inaugural and $14.2 trillion today. The time for blaming his predecessor passed long ago. Mr. Obama is the president and Americans increasingly expect him to act as such.
After Tuesday night's address, the president sent supporters an email about his speech. The subject line read "We Do Big Things" and the message was signed simply "Barack." The familiarity was touching, but the theme was misplaced. Tuesday's speech gave no evidence that Mr. Obama will do the big things this country needs in the next two years.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, January 26, 2011.