A Disgruntled Democrat’s State of the Union III

Prologue:

Once again, and for the last time before the 2012 election gives me a heart attack, I return to offer my thoughts on President Obama’s State of the Union address.

These days, I spend most of my spare time reading about the ragtag gang of misfits in the GOP nominating contest. I also nervously refresh Nate Silver’s 538 Election Models, and watch the ferris wheel of idiocy that is the RCP polling index.

Because I am a self-hating glasses-wearer who avoids MSNBC, I don’t even know the latest Democratic talking points.  Of course, the bar has been set so low by GOP election rhetoric that just hearing the word “regulation” without the prefix “job-killing” will be bliss.  I also look forward to an audience that won’t boo the very existence of minorities or Mexico.  I even have my sunglasses ready to protect my eyes from John Boehner’s day-glo skin.

Christ, it’s been so long that I barely remember our country’s actual issues.  Education? Infrastructure? Unemployment? Environment?  Either way, time to see if President Obama can remind the 54% of Americans who disapprove of his performance why we elected him in the first place.

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The Speech:

Can you tell it’s election year?  In a sweeping, occasionally feisty speech that (unofficially) kicks off the 2012 campaign, President Obama dove headfirst into the populist waters of job creation and tax reform.  Overall, I thought the speech was effective, if a bit long.  But let’s dive into the substance.

Foreign Policy:  Obama kicked off with what is (in my opinion) his single greatest accomplishment: ending the war in Iraq.  Yes, the war was unpopular from nearly the beginning.  But people scream bloody murder when any sort of defense cuts are on the table, and you know opposition must have been tough when candidates like (oops… I forgot his name) even advocated going back in.  President Obama also touted the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in his opening, to raucous applause.  Obama is clearly trying to remind the  extra 5% of people who approved of him for a month following the assassination and then resumed hating his guts that he shares their thirst for terrorist blood.  Still, it is one feat the GOP can’t possibly diminish, so it makes for good stumping.

Later in the speech, Obama turned to the issue of Iran just long enough to say that he was keeping “all options on the table” but that a peaceful resolution was still possible.  And whereas I’m sure this did not satisfy the hardcore republicans tripping over themselves to bomb Iran into the Atone Age, I have to think that at least some Americans recognize that we can’t possibly afford another war.  Obama even took the time to laud our iron clad — iron clad  – relationship with Israel.  I am sure repeating the adjective twice will earn him points tomorrow at his daily meeting with Netanyahu.

Manufacturing: The President waxed poetic on his hopes for the rebirth of American manufacturing.  I have my doubts that the United States will return to being a manufacturing powerhouse with our relatively high labor and environmental costs.  However, this is election season and nothing sells better than the idea that, with a few tweaks, companies will gladly pay a thousand times more for fat Ohioans who get weekends and holidays. Don’t get me wrong, I am very much in favor of restructuring our tax code to encourage job creation — it’s just a process that will prove far more arduous than either party cares to admit.

Obama’s tax proposals, most involving cuts for manufacturers who hire domestically (and penalties for those who hire abroad) are ripped right from the GOP playbook.  Indeed, much of the address played out as a paean to the American worker, and, for long stretches, I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish it from a Romney stump speech.  That is, until he showed his hand by hinting that the government might help play a part in recovery by “turning our unemployment system into a reemployment system.”

Education: The President’s education remarks were pretty uninspired, but it did make me reflect on how little I’ve heard of the issue lately.  Lost in the GOP war drums of tearing down the government, we have a systemic crisis of education ranging from achievement gaps in distressed communities to higher education that is bankrupting the middle class.  Obama addressed both in sweeping fashion, making the usual points about teacher accountability and school funding.  He also threatened to withhold federal funding to universities that didn’t slow tuition growth.  Perhaps most importantly, he urged Congress to keep money in federal aid programs.  It will be important moving forward to remind the American people that, in many cases, government spending can do a lot of good — and students about to see rate increases because of Tea Party intransigence will learn that lesson the hard way.

Energy: Obama walked carefully here, pledging explicitly to open up oil reserves before calling for an “all of the above” energy strategy that, I suppose, implicitly contains all of the energy resources we should be focusing on.  I am mildly annoyed that solar and wind were mentioned once each, while natural gas and oil were discussed extensively.  Such is the nature of election year pandering.  Of course, the first words from this idiot‘s mouth following the speech (yes, I watched it on Fox News) criticized the lack of Keystone Pipeline in the speech.  Does anyone else remember a time when we cared about the noble caribou instead of maximizing our domestic drilling?  At least Obama had the courtesy to drop the understatement of the century so far: “The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change.”

Deficit:  “Take the money we’re no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home.”  Amen. If I had to sum up my policy prescription for America in one sentence, this would be it.

Milk Spill Joke: Not Bad

Congress: Remember these?

  • “Send me a bill that bans insider trading by Members of Congress, and I will sign it tomorrow.”
  • “Send me these tax reforms, and I’ll sign them right away.”
  • “Send me a law that gives them the chance to earn their citizenship. I will sign it right away.”
  • “Send me a bill that creates these jobs.”
  • “So put them in a bill, and get it on my desk this year.”

On one level, these requests smack of naivete; after all, we know that the Republican House would never contemplate useful legislation.  Even if they agreed with it, they couldn’t risk letting Obama reap any benefit. However, I think the strategy is more subtle; it reminds the American people that the biggest obstacle to significant political progress are the clowns in Congress. Not that they need much reminding, as Congress is less popular than Communism.

Moreover, it’s important for LIBERALS to remember that Obama’s supposed ineffectiveness comes largely from the recalcitrance of Congress rather than his philosophical shortcomings.  There are few things Obama has exclusive control over, and reminding Americans of that will only help him.  Of course, all of this may be wishful thinking; perhaps people in the White House are just too lazy to draft up bills.

Shameless Lincoln Plug: I’ll take it over another goddamn Reagan reference.

The Big Finish: To close out, Obama again returned to the Osama story, using it as a metaphor for the importance of sticking together as a country.  As Obama opined,  “Each time I look at that flag, I’m reminded that our destiny is stitched together like those fifty stars and those thirteen stripes.”  Although lines like that will always make a liberal elitist cringe, it is a vastly better campaign strategy than telling it like it is.  If the 2012 election must be won by winning over the generally-apathetic flag-waving masses, then so be it.

* * * *

The State of the Union is always an exercise in platitude. Indeed, you can simply cobble together old ones and make a serviceable speech.  But now is not the time to overly scrutinize its contents.  It is election year.  Any liberal with a pulse should be trying to figure out how to prevent Republicans from dismantling the moderate progress President Obama has made in health care, banking regulation, foreign policy, and the rest.  My own frustrations with President Obama have ebbed and flowed, but I am frightened daily by the alternative.

Some day, the progressive movement will again gain political traction in America.  Until that day, however, it is far better to stand against the irrational rightwing than to submit to apathy.  The speech tonight was a worthy opening salvo in our upcoming electoral struggle, and that is all that matters.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have poll numbers to cringe at.

A Regruntled Democrat on the State of the Union

“How quickly things change” was the first line in my disgruntled introduction to President Obama’s State of the Union Speech last year.

One year ago, Obama was failing in every policy initiative I cared about. Healthcare was on life support from incessant Republican attacks. The war in Afghanistan was scaling up while Iraq stagnated. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell lingered. There had been no financial regulation to counterbalance the wave of bailouts. I was downright pissed.

But what did Obama do? He passed healthcare legislation that, for all its shortcomings, reflects some real progress towards extending coverage. Combat troops were withdrawn from Iraq. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell finally ended (pending implementation). Congress passed sweeping financial reforms that are, by most rational accounts, a substantial step in the right direction. Impressive.

So how did America respond to these resounding achievements? Obama’s popularity tanked and the Republicans took back the House on a Tea Party movement that swings wildly back and forth between being embarrassingly inept and outright dangerous. Worse, the idiot parade is on a collision course with the 2012 Presidential Election.

I suspect the media, which conjures up news stories out of bullshit, has something to do with the divide between reality and the general perception of Obama’s performance.

Luckily, even Americans will take time out of their busy evenings to watch the State of the Union. I’m hoping the President can communicate the accomplishments he’s made — especially since I don’t expect new ones anytime soon with a GOP-controlled House.

My bold prediction for this year’s speech? Less emphasis on offshore oil drilling.

Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

 

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Thoughts on the speech:

To some extent, Obama’s critics are right: he is a very different president than people thought he would be back in 2008. Given the disastrous state of the country at the time and the fever-pitch excitement surrounding his election, this was probably inevitable. And yet, Obama is faced with two approaches: tell America what it wants to hear (aka using positive rhetoric while recklessly running up massive debt) or tell them the truth (aka getting run out of office for having the balls to point out crippling long-term problems). I think people genuinely expected the former from Obama, but he has pretty consistently kept his post-election rhetoric grounded and somber. This State of the Union –like last years– used language plainly directed at the average American. Other than a borrowed line from RFK and his vague instruction to “win the future” (better than the alternative, I suppose), Obama stuck pretty close to the script: identify problems, propose some general solutions, congratulate the American people on being the American people, and tie a ribbon on it with some anecdotes. There was nothing particularly exceptional here, but goddamn it feels good that it’s not George W. Bush up there.

With that said, let’s jump right into the major topics of discussion:

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A Disgruntled Democrat’s State of the State of the Union

Prologue:

How quickly things can change.

Two years ago, I was nearly arrested by French Police for a drunken 3:00 AM shouting match with a Hillary Clinton supporter over the future of the Democratic Party.

Just over a year ago, I braved the bitter cold at Inauguration to bask in the political euphoria of Barack Obama’s election.

These days, I’m just pissed.

The current disastrous state of American politics is clearly not all Obama’s fault.  He inherited a collapsing economy and two disastrous wars.  He has to deal with a stubborn Congress, many members of which have been negotiating in abject bad faith.  Boosted by the sagging economy and brute volume, the so-called “teabaggers” and air-headed media outlets have whittled away at Obama’s popularity.

These extenuating circumstances do not change the simple reality of the situation: Obama is simply not the effective and progressive politician I had hoped for.  He has lagged in withdrawing our troops from Iraq, and has escalated our other foolhardy occupation in Afghanistan.  He has failed to investigate and prosecute the Bush-era officials who authorized and committed the torture of detainees and captives.  Worse, he has continued those policies essentially unabated.  He has failed to close Guantanamo Bay, despite its immense symbolic importance (if anyone else tries to tell me  that “we have nowhere to put” the approximately 200 detainees, while more than two million americans remain incarcerated, I am going to scream).

Over a number of months, he let republicans (with no interest in ever supporting him) turn promising healthcare reform into a bulky health-insurance subsidy that is STILL somehow on life support.  And though he was (and is) the clear face and leader of the party, he let a handful of democratic senators walk all over him.  I appreciate his dedication to the cause, though even I question the expediency of pushing for such expensive reform at a time when unemployment is at levels unseen since well before I was born.  It’s hard to sell people on paying more when they’re barely making ends meet — and it has already cost him tremendous political capital.

Don’t even get me started on how he has abandoned the gay community (particularly by failing to abolish “Don’t ask, don’t tell”) at a time when the cause of gay marriage is hitting speed bumps around the country.  I have no idea why a civil rights issue would ever be up for referendum, but Obama seems content to leave homosexuals hung out to dry.

David asked me to comment on tonight’s State of the Union speech.  I suppose all my editorializing above is somewhat unnecessary, but it should provide some background as to how I’m feeling about his presidency before the speech.

*   *   *   *

OK, Obama’s first State of the Union address is in the books.  I have avoided reading or listening to any third-party reaction to the speech.  I’m somewhat unsure how to structure my commentary on the speech, so I’ll try to break it down into smaller categories.

LANGUAGE/TONE:  The speech was rather predictably bookended by Obama’s trademark “hope and perseverance” rhetoric.  It was nice to have some lip-service paid to the frustrations being felt on all sides, but I’ve grown a little impatient with the atmospheric appeals to our past and shared ideals.  Yes, we all “share a stubborn resilience in the face of adversity”. But, as my gruff father intoned as he walked by during that line, “what the fuck are we supposed to do, kill ourselves?”.  I anticipated Obama’s subsequent drop into more blue-collar, populist lingo as the speech wore on: this is, after all, one of the few chances he has had to appeal to the American people without the filter of 24-hour news outlets.  I’m not sure how much credit I’ll give him for “hating the bank bailout” and likening it “a root canal”.  The fact is, more could have been done to ensure its transparency and ensure that billions weren’t being flushed down the drain.  I did enjoy his potshots at the Supreme Court and Republicans for “obstructing every single bill because they can” (he said he meant both parties, but can this make sense in such a skewed body?).  Both congressional republicans and the Supreme Court deserve nothing short of an ass kicking, but I suppose this will have to do.

THE ECONOMY:  Obama spent the biggest chunk of his speech discussing the economy and ways we might improve it.  Frankly, I found his suggestions a little weak.  Of course he’s right that the centerpiece of economic recovery must focus on job creation.  But what did he actually propose?  Helping to secure loans for small businesses should help create some jobs, as should various tax incentives.  But these are small measures, and don’t address the problem of massive structural unemployment.  Obama “urged” the Senate to pass a jobs bill: but is that particularly reassuring given how unbelievably ineffective he has been at getting his most-cherished policy initiatives passed?

Using China, India, and Germany as examples of countries “not putting their future on hold”, Obama laid out a few ways in which we might make our economy more competitive.  The first is “financial reform” — mentioned in such a vague and cursory way that I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.  His most specific sentence was: “We can’t allow financial institutions, including those that take your deposits, to take risks that threaten the whole economy. ”  Sure, I guess I can get on board with that.  Great.

President Obama made a reference to spending more on “encouraging American innovation”.  This was something in particular that I was looking for.  Economic growth, despite all Reaganesque bullshit rhetoric about small business, is very much dependent on scientific research and innovation. Hey, remember all that economic growth we got out of the internet? That wasn’t some small business opening up a restaurant in Tampa, it was government research.  I was hoping Obama would offer some major spending initiatives for scientific research and education.  But what did he suggest?

1. Nuclear power plants (given the realities of climate change, this is an obvious one)

2. Offshore drilling (really, are we back on this?)

3. Biofuel subsidies (really, are we going to continue disastrous corn subsidies?)

4. Clean coal (I’m pretty sure this still doesn’t exist…)

5. A climate change bill (this is expensive, unpopular, and dependent on non-existent congressional cooperation)

These are weak scientific initiatives, and Obama made no effort to describe where/how much this funding would come from.  (As I will discuss in a bit, it’s totally unclear how these programs will be affected by the “spending freeze”.)

He then murmured something about doubling our farm and small business exports.  How are we going to do this?  Our high labor costs and environmental standards already make our farmers completely dependent on subsidies (which, incidentally, fuck over farmers all over the world).  Are we really talking AGAIN about increasing farm subsidies?

EDUCATION: This is a bread-and-butter issue for me, and was one of the few bright spots of the speech.  Though Obama’s nods to primary education were rather vague, I liked his idea for a new bill revitalizing community colleges, as well as tax breaks for college tuition and an increase in Pell Grants. Ditto for loan breaks to those pursuing careers in public service. These ideas, backed with real funding, are good steps forward in providing some immediate relief for Americans pursuing college degrees.  The current system — in which banks gauge students yet assume none of the risk– is a total sham, and Obama was right to decry it.

HEALTH CARE: Ah, the big dying elephant in the room.  I have to admit, despite my earlier postulation that health care reform should have waited until the economy recovered, Ole’ Barack was able to pull at my liberal heart strings and remind me that it is truly a pressing need in this country.  But just as I was being reminded that we absolutely need to reform the system, I recalled that the current piece of shit kicking around Congress is only a modest (and expensive) improvement.  After seven months, can Obama REALLY only muster up “many…consider this a vast improvement over the status quo”.  Great.You know what?  Many don’t — many people think it’s bullshit, and expensive bullshit at that. And I thought the lowlight of the whole speech was Obama asking that “if anyone from either party has a better approach … let me know”.  This is your initiative, Barack! Don’t tacitly admit that we should spend countless billions on something just because nothing better has been suggested by the wildly unpopular douches in Congress.

SPENDING FREEZE: I am at a total loss here.  Though the above-mentioned ideas were often vaguely presented, THEY WILL ALL COST MONEY!  As he said rather bluntly, “Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will.” So where will the money for that High-speed railroad come from? The community college vitalization? The Pell Grant and loan forgiveness programs? The funds for research and innovation? The alternative energy exploration? The math and science education programs? The tax-credits for small businesses? The additional farm subsidies? The national export initiative? The healthcare expansion (the “savings”, I presume, would play out over a much longer term)? The help with refinancing homes for people stuck with bad mortgages? The “21st Century Veterans Association”? International humanitarian relief (i.e., Haiti)?

The spending freeze makes zero sense, not when genuine economic recovery — AS HE OUTLINED IT — hinges on pouring  ton of money into the research and education initiatives that will open up new domestic industries. “Let’s try common sense,” he called it.  I honestly have no idea what he’s thinking.

FOREIGN POLICY: I was happy with the concrete dates he set out for troop withdrawal.  Out of Iraq by August, out of Afghanistan by July 2011.  If he can deliver on that, I’ll be satisfied.

RANDOM PANDERING: I was glad to hear some perfunctory saber-rattling at North Korea and Iran, as well as his latest claim that he will end “don’t ask, don’t tell”.  Then again, I’m unsure why he claims he needs to “work with congress” to end the latter — it was begun, after all, by an Executive Order by Bill Clinton.  Surely, as Commander in Chief, he could unilaterally end it? He should have done so tonight.

CLOSING: I enjoyed the rhetoric here, but was left disappointed from not having heard any substantive policy implications in the speech.  Kudos to his heavy-handed version of the “USA! USA!” chant that was supposedly being heard in Haiti.  I shed a single star-spangled tear.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Considering that Obama has shown very little ability to get his initiatives passed in Congress, I was disappointed that his State of the Union address did not offer more concrete, unilateral plans to create/fund solutions to the policy questions he appears to be so concerned with.  I don’t want him “urging” congress to do anything — that has simply not worked — but that, for the most part, is what he did.  It was not a bad speech, by any stretch, but it gave me little reassurance that I can expect the type of progress that I envisioned when he first took office.  Another year like this would feel like a root canal.

-Thomas