It was a classic Obama maneuver. He made a strong defense of our social programs and articulated a vision of a generous America in contrast to the Republicans' stingy one. But then he largely went down a Republican path.
He started off beautifully. "Each one of us deserves some basic measure of security," he said. "We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff, may strike any one of us.... So we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment insurance, which protects us against unexpected job loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, and those with disabilities. We are a better country because of these commitments. I'll go further -- we would not be a great country without those commitments."
He said, firmly, "I will not allow Medicare to become a voucher program that leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry, with a shrinking benefit to pay for rising costs. I will not tell families with children who have disabilities that they have to fend for themselves."
And he did denounce the tax cuts that have gone "to every millionaire and billionaire in the country."
But then he accepted the Republican terminology of "fiscal responsibility" and the need "to live within our means, reduce our deficit, and get back on a path that will allow us to pay down our debt." He even said that the Republican goal of reducing the deficit by $4 trillion over the next 10 years was a worthy goal!
With unemployment still at 8.8 percent (that's 13.5 million Americans officially out of work, and millions more unofficially), this is not the time to focus attention on reducing the deficit and paying down our debt. We are not suffering because of the deficit and the debt today; we're suffering because people are out of work and being thrown out of their homes.
"The fundamental problem in our country right now is unemployment and a jobs crisis, not a deficit crisis," as Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, an advocacy group for the poor, told the Washington Post.
Obama also conceded, with what he thought was a good joke, that raising taxes is always unpopular. "Without even looking at a poll, my finely honed political skills tell me that almost no one believes they should be paying higher taxes," he said.
Maybe he should have actually looked at a poll. Because here are three polls that show that Americans are willing to pay more in taxes.
One shows that 67 percent are "very willing or somewhat willing" to pay more for public education.
Another shows that 60 percent were willing to pay more for universal health care.
And yet another shows that 48 percent would be willing to pay higher taxes if the increase would fund environmentally friendly improvements in their community.
Obama did say he would refuse to renew the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest (but he has said that before), and he proposed "limiting itemized deductions for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans." (That's not likely to get through Congress.)
And to his credit, he did ask for "additional savings in our defense budget."
But he praised last week's budget deal, which Senator Bernie Sanders called "Robin Hood in reverse." Sanders noted that it included, among other things, a $390 million cut in the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, a $35 billion cut in Pell grants, a $600 million cut in community health centers, and a $4.5 billion cut in the Children's Health Insurance Program. Yet Obama said he was going to "keep annual domestic spending low by building on the savings that both parties agreed to last week."
In fact, he was so obsessed with the deficit and the debt that he threw in some handcuffs. He included something he called "a debt failsafe," explaining: "If, by 2014, our debt is not projected to fall as a share of the economy -- or if Congress has failed to act -- my plan will require us to come together and make up the additional savings with more spending cuts and more spending reductions in the tax code."
What if the economy is still in the doldrums in 2014? This would guarantee a further slide.
If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story "Republicans Don't Want to "Promote the General Welfare"."
Follow Matthew Rothschild @mattrothschild on Twitter.