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

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6 thoughts on “A Disgruntled Democrat’s State of the State of the Union

  1. I generally agree with your post and your perspective. Good summary!

    However, just wanted to observe that no one has said “out of Afghanistan by July 2011.” The plan is that the first troop goes home then. Technically, as long as a couple more people go home each month thereafter, this is the beginning of the withdrawal. So don’t hold your breath on that one.

  2. I have respect for Obama’s instincts on most issues, and usually want to give him the benefit of the doubt. But he’s so contorting his policy agenda in order to leave undisturbed the current political climate that its no longer coherent. When he’s visibly tying his hands, I start to wonder about his judgment.

  3. Just a quick note on needing Congress’s help in getting rid of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell:

    10 U.S.C. 654(b) states that a member of the armed forces “shall” be separated from the armed forces under regulations put forth by the Secretary of Defense if that member engaged in homosexual conduct, stated that he or she is a homosexual, or knowingly attempted to marry a person of the same biological sex.

    You might be able to argue that Obama could instruct the Secretary of Defense to issue regulations that gut the statute in some way, but it seems to me like an uphill battle. Congress might have to help.

  4. Pingback: Bredesen Signs Special Session Education Legislation | Educational Tennessee

  5. Pingback: A Regruntled Democrat on the State of the Union « stone soup

  6. Pingback: A Disgruntled Democrat’s State of the Union III | stone soup

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