Paul Begala: Enough With the Deficit, Obama!

'Obama has shown the audacity to put deficit mania in its place.' Mario Tama/Getty

“Deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan.” With those eight words in his State of the Union address, Barack Obama sought to fundamentally refocus the debate over America’s economic future.

This is, as Joe Biden might say, a Big Financial Deal. For nearly all of President Obama’s tenure, Washington has been obsessed with deficits. All the best people—the kind of folks who call Washington “this town” and use sentences that begin, “And so I told the undersecretary”—have been in ironclad agreement that the deficit and the debt constitute the biggest problems facing our country. Now Obama, who went to the same fancy schools as the best people, has shown the audacity to put deficit mania in its place. The slow decline and possible death of the American middle class, the president said, that is the true crisis.

What a difference an election makes. Can you imagine Mitt Romney speaking to that joint session of Congress? The man who famously declared that the majority of American voters were just looking for “gifts” like education and health care is not likely to have turned the nation’s attention to the plight of the hard-pressed middle class.

Fear not, deficit hawks, Obama has not adopted the tone of the Republicans who ran up the red ink. He is no Ronald Reagan, who once told reporters not to worry about the deficit because “it’s big enough to take care of itself.” Nor is he a Dick Cheney, who sneered at Treasury Secretary (and deficit hawk) Paul O’Neill, “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.” Nor, thank goodness, is he a George W. Bush, who inherited an expanding surplus and turned it into an exploding deficit by cutting taxes, especially for the rich, waging two wars on a credit card, and creating a massive, new prescription-drug entitlement for seniors with no tax to pay for it. As someone who helped President Clinton balance the budget and build a surplus, I get furious when Republicans whine about deficits. Have they no shame?

The truth, according to the Congressional Budget Office, is that the deficit is projected to drop from 10 percent of GDP the year Obama was inaugurated to 7 percent in 2012 to just 2.4 percent in 2015. That’s all good news. But the middle class is in serious trouble, which is terrible news—and so the president is right to focus on this subject.

Indeed, perhaps the major accomplishment of the State of the Union address was to remind Americans that the single biggest problem facing the country is not the deficit, but the collapse of the middle-class American Dream: a good job you can raise a family on, good schools you can send your kids to, owning a home in a neighborhood where you can walk safely, a family doctor for every family, being able to send your kids to college without drowning in debt, retiring with some dignity. The loss of that dream should be animating every conversation at every Beltway cocktail party. And bully for the president for resetting our national priorities.

The president is definitely feeling his oats. Rather than a crimped and cramped agenda, he threw deep: universal prekindergarten, an increase in the minimum wage, new assistance for manufacturing industries, fundamentally rewriting the federal tax code. He all but channeled Daniel Day-Lewis channeling Abraham Lincoln: “I am the president of the United States, clothed with immense power!” If Obama is correct—and I believe he is—he will need every stitch of that power in the fight to save the middle class.

The Republicans chose Florida Sen. Marco Rubio to respond to the State of the Union. Rubio was, I said before his speech, a great choice. I am grateful to note that my gushing over Rubio was nothing compared with Time, which baptized him “the Republican savior,” or Karl Rove, who slobbered that the freshman senator is “the best communicator since Ronald Reagan.” Likening anyone to Reagan is like comparing a promising young songwriter to Bob Dylan. And then Rubio gave a speech riddled with discredited Romneyisms, while fighting a case of dry mouth, before finally surrendering and lurching out of the frame to slam down a few precious ounces of bottled water. Rather than Reagan, who hosted Death Valley Days, Rubio looked like he’d spent days in Death Valley. Instead of the Gipper, we got the Sipper.