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National

Conservatives Disagree With Obama's Social Spending Proposals

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And here's one short analysis of Obama's State of the Union speech; he gave Congress a list of ideas that will never pass. The president spoke up for his priorities. Republicans in Congress have theirs. He spoke of middle-class economics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Middle-class economics means helping working families feel more secure in a world of constant change. That means helping folks afford child care, college, health care, a home, retirement. And my budget will address each of these issues, lowering the taxes of working families and putting thousands of dollars back into their pockets each year.

MONTAGNE: Let's get another conservative perspective on what the president proposed. David Frum, senior editor of The Atlantic, was among those listening to the president's address and sat down with our Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Welcome to the program.

DAVID FRUM: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Good to have you back. Was the president's rhetoric in his proposals any different from any other politician who talks constantly about the middle class?

FRUM: It was very different. This is a much more aggressively progressive program than has been heard in American politics for a long time, including from President Obama himself. A lot more social spending - he calls it tax cuts because it's going to be routed through the tax code, but he's going to give people back much more money than they ever sent in in the first place, so it's spending. He's going to finance that with very aggressively redistributive taxes, or at least that's his proposal. This is a redistributive program; it's not a growth program. That's very different from what we've had for many, many years.

INSKEEP: I would think if he was sitting here, he might argue with you on that point and say, look, providing child care to someone helps her get into the workforce. There actually is some economic growth here.

FRUM: Maybe, but it would be a very indirect effect, very remote effect. And it's not the immediate purpose of the program. The immediate purpose is to move wealth from some people to others, and the president is very explicit about that. In fact, as I walked into the NPR lobby, NPR reported that. That was the headline - to boost equality, president offers new spending.

INSKEEP: Well, let's look at some of these specific proposals, and of course we don't know a lot of details at this point. We do know what the president has already done on health care, which he mentioned. He talked about helping people to get a home, helping people to afford college. He has specifically said he wants people to get two years free community college. Do any specific proposals make economic sense from your perspective?

FRUM: Well, I think the idea of making community college more affordable does make a lot of sense, and I think there's some other measures that might be helpful. I mean, we do need to move towards some system of mothers' allowances to make sure that women are able to participate more fully in the workforce by choosing their own health care.

But the president is financing this in a striking way. I mean, he is going to take away a lot of the existing benefits that benefit professional people, help them pay for their college bills. People earning in the $80,000 to $150,000 range, they will lose in order to benefit people who earn less than $80,000. And that ignites a debate not just between Democrats and Republicans, but even more within the Democratic Party. So much of this speech was an attempt to take away options from Hillary Clinton.

INSKEEP: What do you mean?

FRUM: Well, the Clinton administration of course is famously a business-minded Democratic administration. It invested a lot in education and things like that, but it was not interested in redistribution. Bill Clinton signed a capital gains tax cut, and almost all of the major elements of the financial deregulation, against which the president spoke last night, were signed into law by President Clinton, not by President George W. Bush. And President Obama must worry as he sees his Democratic predecessor's wife and political heir leading the Democratic field, does this mean the party is going back to Clintonism?

INSKEEP: So there's an argument among Democrats as you see it. There's also of course an argument with the Republican Party. We've heard President Obama say he's got his list of proposals. He believes the government can help people pull themselves up in different situations. Republicans have been profoundly skeptical of government's ability to affect the economic lives of individuals in any efficient way. Just because they're changing their rhetoric, are they actually changing that belief?

FRUM: I think we are seeing a slow change of thinking in the Republican Party. And there was a time when the thing we were supposed to discuss was the size of government. When Mitt Romney made his famous 47 percent remark that was not a gaffe in the sense of some crazy thought that came from nowhere.

INSKEEP: All kinds of conservatives were saying...

FRUM: Yeah. That was actually settled party doctrine. Paul Ryan gave a very considered and completely written-out-in-advance speech on that subject to the American Enterprise Institute the year before, warning we were come into point where the people who were net payers would be outnumbered by the people who were net beneficiaries.

I am thankful that that way of thinking has been jettisoned and that the Republican Party can see that the reason so many people are benefiting from government these days is partly because the population is aging and partly because we've had the greatest employment crisis since the 1930s and that the way to make people to less dependent on government is to have a more robust private sector in which people can earn their livings rather than have to invoice for them.

INSKEEP: So if the president takes this approach for the next couple of years, is he going to put Republicans in a difficult situation? Because Republicans want to be saying they recognize the problem with equality of opportunity; they want to bring people up; they want to focus on the poor. But they're going to be against the president's proposals for child care, the president's proposals for education, the president's proposals on health care, on and on.

FRUM: I don't think it's at all a difficult situation. I think it's a fruitful and promising situation and one of most exciting situations we've seen for a long time. The president has opened a debate on which Republicans could have a lot to say if they would energize themselves. They haven't been saying it. Now we are going to have this discussion, and it's going to bring out our best selves, our most generous selves. So we're going to have to talk about, how do we make schools work better? We're going to have to talk about how do we have an immigration policy that increases competition at the top of the labor market rather than at the bottom?

You know, the United States imports a lot of people to compete with construction workers. It imports very few people to compete with surgeons and CEOs. One of the things you might think if you look at the widening of the gap between the top and the bottom is - now we have a real surplus of unskilled labor and a real shortage of skilled labor, and maybe our immigration policy should be flipped upside-down to subject people at the top to the bracing competition that people at the bottom have experienced since 1970.

INSKEEP: David Frum of The Atlantic, always a pleasure.

FRUM: Nice to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.