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Obama’s claim that Americans have grown soft has received a lot of justified criticism.
Having blamed his troubles on everything from ATMs to Japanese tsunamis to the Arab Spring to FoxNews, he’s finally resorted to going after you and me. As Byron York has written, he's frustrated that Americans aren't embracing his agenda, which makes them "soft." Apparently Obama wasn't satisfied with the backlash he got by telling black Americans they are complainers, so he decided to dish on everyone.
He's ended up looking a bit silly in all of this. But we shouldn’t let our criticism of Obama prevent us – even in these economically troubling times – from reflecting on the question of whether we have the moral muscle we need to confront our nation’s biggest challenges.
Here are four areas in our public life that suggest we could toughen up:
Welfare for me, but not for thee. Voters who want to see federal spending slashed are generally reluctant to embrace entitlement reform. Social Security and Medicare – not foreign aid, not green tech programs, not anything else – are what threaten to bankrupt us, and yet there’s little citizen activism aimed at reforming them. They are, after all, big social welfare programs that benefit us all. If we’re tough enough, we’ll embrace reform
Tax cuts for me, spending cuts for thee. Related to the first point, wanting lower taxes without wanting equal shares of cuts is a sign of softness. Republican candidates in 2012 are big on tax cuts and tax reform, but much vaguer about how they would trim spending necessary to go along with those cuts. That’s because that takes them into the domain of cutting things ordinary middle class voters like. Rather than lead, they accept our collective timidity at face value and run away from the issue. Read Tyler Cowen’s NYT column yesterday for more on this topic. If we want to get the government under control, lowering taxes is a key part of it, but so is cutting spending at levels that are serious. Are we tough enough for that?
Tax fairness for me, but not for thee. Obama talks about the rich paying their fair share because class warfare sells. But the truth, of course, is different than what he says: the percentage of federal taxes already paid by the richest Americans makes us one of the most progressive tax systems around – and that’s according to the OECD, not some right-wing group. In a republic like ours, the rich should pay more than everyone else, but everyone else should also pay something, and right now nearly half of us don't pay any income taxes. We all have a stake in the republic. But you see very little activism for this kind of fairness because it ultimately means a net increase in the income taxes that lower middle class families pay. Who’s willing to take a tough stand on this kind of fairness and justice? Republicans talk about "comprehensive tax reform" but avoid saying too clearly what it means for the half of America that gets off each April tax-free.
Productivity for thee, not for me. Before the recession, the percentage of working age adults who were actually working was dropping – so much so that we fell below the European average in 2007. Young adults aren’t forming families like they used to, and now the recession has exacerbated these troubling trends in our labor force and households. The ideals of independence, self-sufficiency, and enterprise have been under attack by liberal elites for some time, and now they seem to be eroding in a big enough swath of the populace as a whole that we should be deeply worried about the future workforce's ability to keep America headed in the right direction. But who really talks about these trends? It would seem too harsh. It's much easier to find a part of the population without much of a voice - such as poor people or immigrants - and accuse them of not embodying American virtues, than to look in the mirror.
Obama is wrong that people who don’t support his Leviathan strategy for America are “soft.” But we shouldn’t let our defense of ourselves prohibit us from asking the tough question: are we strong enough to deal head-on with the difficult times we're living in?