SOTU: President Obama on shouldering the burden and redistributing the wealth

“WeOfficial_portrait_of_Barack_Obama can’t ask senior citizens and working families to shoulder the entire burden of deficit reduction while asking nothing more from the wealthiest and the most powerful.”
–President Obama

 

Overview

The Facts

In discussing Medicare reform during his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama said the following (bold emphasis added):

 

Yes, the biggest driver of our long-term debt is the rising cost of health care for an aging population. And those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare must embrace the need for modest reforms. Otherwise, our retirement programs will crowd out the investments we need for our children and jeopardize the promise of a secure retirement for future generations.

But we can’t ask senior citizens and working families to shoulder the entire burden of deficit reduction while asking nothing more from the wealthiest and the most powerful.

 

We are not aware of any legislative proposal to require Medicare beneficiaries to bear the entire burden of deficit reduction.

Analyzing the Rhetoric

We chose this statement from the State of the Union speech because we thought other fact checkers would ignore it and because it presents an interpretive challenge while making use of some of the president’s trademark rhetorical devices.

What was Obama saying?

At first blush, he was saying that Medicare should undergo some sort of reform but others should share seniors’ sacrifice, in particular the rich and powerful.

But the English doesn’t add up.

In strict logical terms, if we ask senior citizens and working families to bear the entire burden then they’ll bear the entire burden regardless.  And if a growing economy increases government revenues then there’s no apparent reason why senior citizens and working families can’t literally bear the full burden of deficit reduction.  That is, unless the rich and powerful are already part of the set of people including seniors and working families.  Given that condition one couldn’t put the burden on seniors and working families without at the same time putting it on the wealthy and powerful.

While that understanding works logically, it would at the same time nearly make nonsense of the president’s statement.  He can’t make any significant political point that way.

So, as a statement of economic fact, the president is off track with this one.

It’s more common to see the president’s sentiment in the form “We shouldn’t ask senior citizens and working families to bear the entire burden of deficit reduction.”

It’s probably best to take the line as a moral statement in line with this version.  We won’t presume in this context to judge whether the statement is factually true as a moral statement.

Assessing the strategy in the rhetoric is another matter, however.

What’s the message?

The president proposes modest Medicare reform and says it isn’t fair for Medicare beneficiaries to suffer alone from cutting the deficit.  So he’s saying he’ll raise taxes to make it more fair.

It’s wealth redistribution with a little fallacy of ambiguity thrown in to create the impression Medicare reform wouldn’t work without raising taxes.  And the part about asking seniors and working families to bear the entire burden of cutting the deficit is a straw man.  There’s no such proposal.

Summary

“we can’t ask senior citizens and working families to shoulder the entire burden of deficit reduction”

FallacyIcon straw man

“while asking nothing more from the wealthiest and the most powerful.”

FallacyIcon Ambiguity

Obama’s overall message with this claim fits perfectly with the theme of his speech.  As president he will try to reform Medicare with modest changes and try to obtain more tax increases on the wealthy.

References

State of the Union 2013: President Obama’s Address to Congress (Transcript).” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 12 Feb. 2013. Web. 13 Feb. 2013.

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