The Obama they voted for

President’s fiscal plan comes down hard on the wealthy and unites the Democratic Party.

One trillion dollars in new taxes – and a staunch defence of the welfare state.

That was the profoundly partisan sentiment at the heart of President Obama's much-anticipated deficit reduction speech last night, as he laid out plans for spending cuts worth four trillion bucks over the next 12 years.

In the address at George Washington University, he laid the blame firmly on President Bush's administration – for spending trillions while giving the country's richest people even more in tax cuts. That, he said, had put America on a track it would take years to recover from – constantly spending more than it received.

Republicans, especially Tea Party activists, immediately accused him of playing catch-up, claiming he must have seen polls showing the public was behind their plans for sweeping $6trn cuts.

But this was also Obama's pledge to devise a cuts package that spread the pain – to protect those twin planks of social security protection, Medicare and Medicaid, albeit with some changes, and make richer Americans dig a bit deeper to pay for it.

Getting the poorest people to contribute more for their health coverage so the wealthiest got to keep a bit more of their wealth was just "not going to happen while I am president". A rallying cry, indeed, to spark his Democratic base after dismaying many liberals last week, when he agreed to a compromise deal for this year's budget involving some $38bn in cuts.

Obama did propose some pretty deep spending cuts of his own, of course – but they would come mainly from the federal defence budget, followed by health – and he promised that savings there would largely be made through lowering the cost of prescription drugs and concentrating on preventative treatment. Another trillion, he said, could also be saved by lowering interest payments on the federal debt. And the final trillion or so? Ending those Bush-era tax breaks.

New message of change

As several pundits have pointed out, Obama was also keen to promote a wider ideological message, one about the kind of America he wanted the country to be. He accused the Republicans – specifically Paul Ryan's plans to make such deep cuts in social security – of trying to "change the social compact" and being "deeply pessimistic" about America's future.

He appealed to a sense of community, citing Abraham Lincoln in his defence, as he outlined "a belief that we are all connected, and that there are some things we can only do as a nation". Instead of making the less fortunate even worse off, he argued, the role of government was to invest in America's people – all of them.

"We are a better country because of these commitments," he said. "I'll go further – we would not be a great country without [them]."

Liberals were mostly delighted by what the Washington Post called "the most ambitious defence [Obama] may ever have attempted of American liberalism and of what it means to be a Democrat".

This was the Obama many of them hoped for when they voted him into office on that wave of enthusiasm back in 2008.

The instant reaction from conservatives obviously wasn't favourable: one Republican, Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas, hit out at what he saw as pure electioneeering.

"This wasn't a speech designed to win the future, this was a speech designed for the president to attempt to win re-election," Hensarling said. And other potentia 2012l presidential challengers lined up to offer their critique: Tim Pawlenty dismissed it as "little more than window-dressing", while Mitt Romney called it "too little too late".

The Republicans are also pressing ahead with their $6.4trn package of cut, putting proposals before Congress later this week. Even though it's likely to pass the House of Representatives, where the GOP has a majority, Democrats in the Senate will probably block it, arguing that such deep cuts could push the country back into recession.

And Obama has the power to wield his presidential veto. So although he talked about bipartisan agreement and regular meetings between leaders from both parties, the House Speaker, John Boehner, has firmly ruled out any plans to increase taxes as a "non-starter".

It could all come to a crunch when Congress has to vote on a technical issue – raising the $14.3trn debt limit ceiling – in a few weeks' time. The Republicans say they'll block it unless there's a deal to reduce the long-term deficit. That would officially put the United States into default, which would not only be embarrassing, but could have a profound impact on economies around the world.

Right now, neither side looks in the mood to compromise. At least Joe Biden – who looked as if he was snoozing through a large chunk of the speech – may have caught up on a bit of shut-eye while he had the chance.

Felicity Spector is a deputy programme editor for Channel 4 News.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle