Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
The coming clash between President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner over the budget, entitlements and the nation’s debt is being driven by political calculations that will loom large in tense negotiations this spring and into the summer.
But recent speeches by both men show that Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner are not simply offering different solutions the current fiscal challenges facing the United States. They are proposing fundamentally different visions of the desired role of government in American life.
These postures are in keeping with the long-standing philosophies of the two parties, but the sharpness of their presentation could make it particularly difficult for the speaker and the president to reach a compromise as the Treasury’s ability to borrow money runs out within the next several months. And it reaffirms that the 2012 campaign will offer voters an ever starker choice between competing visions of the value of government.
In a speech to the Economic Club of New York on Monday, Mr. Boehner vowed to oppose all tax increases in the upcoming budget and said Congress should not increase the debt limit unless government spending is cut by trillions of dollars — the now standard bargaining positions of Congressional Republicans, reflecting the growing influence of the Tea Party within their caucus.
But Mr. Boehner went beyond the current debate, declaring that a belief in government intervention is an arrogant philosophy that inexorably leads to economic decline.
“When the economy grows, it’s not because of a new government program or spending initiative,” Mr. Boehner said. “It’s because a lot of people in the private sector worked hard, and were successful in overcoming the obstacles thrown in their path. The rash of ‘stimulus’ legislation passed by Congress in recent years has been one of those obstacles.”
“It’s time,” he said, “to leave that era behind.”
Mr. Obama, by contrast, last month described what he called a “thread running through our history,” a belief, he said, that “through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves.”
In a speech at George Washington University, Mr. Obama caught the attention of political reporters by slamming the budget proposals put forward by Mr. Boehner’s Republican House. But the speech also reaffirmed the president’s — and his party’s — belief in the power of government to affect positive change.
“This larger debate that we’re having — this larger debate about the size and the role of government — it has been with us since our founding days,” Mr. Obama said. “And during moments of great challenge and change, like the one that we’re living through now, the debate gets sharper and it gets more vigorous. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing.”
The president made clear in the speech where he stands on that debate, saying that the government programs at the center of the current debate — Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security — are part of the fundamental pact between the American government and its citizens.
“We would not be a great country without those commitments,” he said.
Moderates in both parties are eager to find a deal that could cut government spending enough to satisfy Mr. Boehner and Republicans in Congress while satisfying the interests of Mr. Obama and his Democratic Party for long-term investments that promote their priorities in education, infrastructure and other domestic development.
But the rhetoric about the basic role of government from the two leaders will make that tough.
Mr. Boehner on Monday said that the growth of government represents a Washington arrogance that has sparked a “political rebellion” in the country.
“I don’t think ‘rebellion’ is too strong of a word,” Mr. Boehner said. “The revolt we have seen by ordinary citizens over the past few years is like nothing we’ve seen in our lifetime. And it’s happening in part because the arrogant habits of Washington are having real economic consequences.”
Mr. Obama, meanwhile, derided the vision of Mr. Boehner’s Republican Party as one that sacrifices too much in the interests of shrinking the size and scope of government.
“We don’t have to choose between a future of spiraling debt and one where we forfeit our investment in our people and our country,” Mr. Obama declared.
As the parties debate the particulars in front of them, the contrasting philosophies of their leaders will be on everyone’s minds. Here are some other examples:
BOEHNER: Our economy does best when government respects our people enough to give them the freedom to do what they do best. (New York speech, 5/9/11)
OBAMA: I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves, that says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity, for history tells a different story. (Speech to Congress, 2/24/09)
BOEHNER: When things aren’t going well in our economy, the impulse in Washington is usually to respond with something big … something quote-unquote ‘comprehensive.’ The assumption is that this will provide reassurance to job creators. But it usually has the opposite effect in practice. (New York speech, 5/9/11)
OBAMA: History reminds us that, at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas. (Speech to Congress, 2/24/09)
BOEHNER: We owe them a humbler government that lives within its means and values the entrepreneurial drive of our people, with policies that unleash the awesome potential of our economy. (New York speech, 5/9/11)
OBAMA: For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. … The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works. (Inaugural address, 1/20/09)
BOEHNER: Many of our problems can be traced to a misguided belief by politicians that the American economy is something that can be controlled or micromanaged or influenced positively by government intervention and borrowing. All too often, rather than providing long-term policies that will help our economy expand, government offers short-term fixes that do little right away, and end up making things worse over time. (New York speech, 5/9/11)
OBAMA: This is my vision for America — a vision where we live within our means while still investing in our future; where everyone makes sacrifices but no one bears all the burden; where we provide a basic measure of security for our citizens and we provide rising opportunity for our children. (George Washington University speech, 4/13/11)
BOEHNER: “When the economy grows, it’s not because of a new government program or spending initiative. It’s because a lot of people in the private sector worked hard, and were successful in overcoming the obstacles thrown in their path. (New York speech, 5/9/11)
OBAMA: This plan will require significant resources from the federal government and, yes, probably more than we’ve already set aside. But while the cost of action will be great, I can assure you that the cost of inaction will be far greater, for it could result in an economy that sputters along for not months or years, but perhaps a decade. (Speech to Congress, 2/24/09)