Take five steps back and consider the nature of the political conversation in our nation's capital. You would never know that it's taking place at a moment when unemployment is still at 9 percent, when wages for so many people are stagnating at best, and when the United States faces unprecedented challenges to its economic dominance.
No, we are acting here as if the only real problem the United States confronts is the budget deficit; the only test of leadership is whether a president is willing to make big cuts in programs that protect the elderly; and the largest threat to our prosperity comes from public employees.
Take another five steps back and you realize how successful the Tea Party has been. No matter how much liberals may poke fun at them, Tea Party partisans can claim victory in fundamentally altering the country's dialogue.
Consider all the things Washington and the media are mostly ignoring. You haven't heard much lately on how Wall Street shenanigans tanked the economy in the first place—and in the process made a small number of people very rich. Yet any discussion of the problems caused by concentrated wealth (a vital mainstream issue in the America of Andrew Jackson and both Roosevelts) is confined to the academic or left-wing sidelines.
You haven't seen a lot of news stories describing the impact of long-term unemployment on people's lives or the difficulty working-class kids are encountering if they want to go to college.
You hear a lot about how much the government spends on the elderly, but not much about facts such as this one, courtesy of a report [PDF] last fall from the Employee Benefit Research Institute: People over seventy-five "were more likely than other age groups—including children under eighteen—to live on incomes equal to or less than 200 percent of poverty."
Any analysis of the economic struggles many elderly people endure would get in the way of the "greedy geezer" storyline being spun to justify big cuts in Medicare benefits and Social Security.
Thanks to the Tea Party, we are now told that all our problems will be solved by cutting government programs. Thus the House Republicans foresee nirvana if we simply reduce our spending on Head Start, Pell grants for college access, teen pregnancy prevention, clean water programs, K–12 education and a host of other areas.
Does anyone really think that cutting such programs will create jobs or help Americans get ahead? But give the Tea Party guys credit: They have seized the political and media agenda and made budget cutting as fashionable as Justin Bieber was five minutes ago.
More striking is the Tea Party's influence on Washington's political elite, which looks down its nose at the more extreme men and women of the Right when they appear on Fox News but ends up carrying their water.
Last week, Lori Montgomery reported in the Washington Post that a bipartisan group of senators thinks a sensible deficit reduction package would involve lifting the Social Security retirement age to sixty-nine and reforming taxes, purportedly to raise revenue, in a way that would cut the top income tax rate for the wealthy from 35 percent to 29 percent.
Only a body dominated by millionaires could define "shared sacrifice" as telling nurses' aides and coal miners they have to work until age sixty-nine while sharply cutting tax rates on wealthy people. I see why conservative Republicans like this. I honestly don't get why Democrats—"the party of the people," I've heard—would come near such an idea.
The media are full of commentary on President Obama's "failure of leadership." There is some truth to the critique but not in the way the charge is typically made.
Obama is not at fault for his budget proposals. But any fair examination of the news suggests that he is in danger of losing control of the national narrative again, just as he did during the stimulus and health-care battles.
In his State of the Union address, Obama made a good case that budget cutting is too small an agenda and that this is also a time for more government—yes, more government—in areas that would expand opportunities and strengthen the economy. That argument has been entirely drowned out. If politics is reduced to a crabbed and crabby accountants' war, Obama loses. The country will, too.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).