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Obama, Ryan Both Were Right — and Wrong

Between President Barack Obama’s State of the Union message and Rep. Paul Ryan’s (Wis.) GOP response, who was right? Well, they both were.

Obama was right to say that, to “win the future,” America needs to “out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.”

And Ryan was right to say that “we face a crushing burden of debt” that “will soon eclipse our entire economy and grow to catastrophic levels in the years ahead.”

Obama was right to say the United States needs to invest more in education, research and development, and infrastructure.

And Ryan was right to say that spending has to be brought under control.

If only Obama and Congress could — as both of them urged — “work together” to do both.

But that would take a dramatic re-adjustment of priorities — and a tempering of philosophical differences that will be made more difficult by the enhanced power of tea party Republicans represented Tuesday night by Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.)

With massive intellectual dishonesty, Bachmann blamed Obama policies for “spiking” unemployment from 7.8 percent when he took office to a high of 10.1 percent — neglecting to mention the great recession that began under President George W. Bush.

What the country needs is a strategy to both invest and cut, but Ryan gave short shrift to investment and Obama to fiscal discipline.

Obama’s proposed five-year freeze on domestic spending will save just $400 billion over 10 years — $40 billion a year — when annual deficits are projected to be $1 trillion.

And Obama gave the merest mention to his own fiscal commission’s call for reforming entitlement programs and eliminating tax loopholes to reduce cumulative deficits by $1.5 trillion over 10 years — in addition to discretionary cuts of $1.5 trillion.

At the same time, there was nary a mention in Ryan’s speech of the obvious need to improve education, increase research and build infrastructure.

He, along with practically the entire GOP, labeled government investment as mere “spending,” implying there is no need for any of it —  that it ought to be cut.

Ryan is planning to present a House budget that will cut $50 billion to $60 billion from domestic spending this year and reduce future spending to 2008 levels, not inflated 2011 levels, as Obama proposes.

The conservative Republican Study Committee, whose membership includes two-thirds of House GOP members, is calling for much deeper cuts — $100 billion this year and $2.5 trillion over 10 years — all from domestic discretionary spending that accounts for just 12 percent of the federal budget.

Cuts so drastic would leave little room for investments — though, to its credit, the RSC did call for an end to two farm subsidies, whereas Obama and Ryan never mentioned any.

Obama’s speech was clearly part of his effort to move toward the center. He’s stopped bashing and has started praising business — with the exception of oil and health insurance companies — and he called for a cut in the corporate tax rate.

That said, his “redoubling” of infrastructure spending and expansion of energy research seem heavily government-directed. He did not renew his call for an independent national infrastructure bank to set priorities and attract private capital.

To his credit — and political advantage — Obama called on the nation to do “big things” and set forth worthy goals, including doubling exports by 2014, training 100,000 new math and science teachers in 10 years and making the U.S. No. 1 again in college graduation rates.

He also set goals to give 98 percent of Americans access to high-speed wireless communications in five years, to give 80 percent access to high-speed rail in 25 years and to have 80 percent of electricity produced by clean sources by 2035.

Yet he passed up the opportunity to challenge Congress to work on comprehensive tax reform, separating corporate reform and individual reform in different parts of the speech.

Ryan’s much shorter speech set forth few specific goals — just to produce a budget that will “show you how we intend to do things differently … cut spending to get the debt down, help create jobs and prosperity and reform government programs.”

Reforming government, promised by both Obama and Ryan, is a goal worthy of joint effort. Making government work as efficiently as the private sector deserves a deep dive like the Hoover commissions that reformed government in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations.

Ryan also promised that Republicans, having voted to repeal Obama’s health care reform, will produce an alternative that’s “fiscally responsible, patient-centered … and reduce costs and expand coverage.”

But estimates are that GOP health plans will expand coverage to only 3 million of the 50 million uninsured — although Ryan was also right to say that Obama created “a new open-ended entitlement” that will cause “millions of people to lose coverage they already have.”

There’s a vast philosophical gap between Republicans who believe that “limited government will unshackle our economy and create millions of new jobs and opportunities for all people” and Obama, who clearly still believes in a leading role for government.

But maybe they can find common ground at the margins — and maybe expand the margins to include both vital investment and debt reduction. For sure, it’s what the public wants.

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