“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 Combat troops were withdrawn from Iraq.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.
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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:
Economy: The still-sluggish economy was the elephant in the room. I don’t have too much to say about the rather empty lines about “cutting everything we can afford to do without.” Obama alluded to some consolidation of the federal government and budget cut proposals, but who knows how that will turn out. Ultimately, the only conclusion I drew was that the intern who wrote the half-assed analogy about “lightening the plane by removing the engine” should be fired. I am also expressly disappointed that there was no GOP standing ovation when Obama mentioned record corporate profits.
Education: I was thrilled that Obama spent so much time discussing education. It’s no secret that America has failing schools throughout the country and lags behind other developed nations across the board in test scores. The problem has even trickled up to our vaunted college system, where the disparity between cost and useful education is near mind-boggling.
Americans love a quick-fix, but the problems with our education system are complex. Some of the blame belongs with the education system itself: there are problems ingrained in the structure of our schools, the way they are funded, and the way they are evaluated. But much of it falls back on the educational culture of the country. America does not take education seriously, and in a world where “human capital” is the only thing that we still actually produce, the results are disastrous. I like Obama’s rather pragmatic approach to the solution: cajole the parents, but in the meantime, stop kicking PhD’s out of the damn country. Surely even a tea-partier can see that the Indian biophysicist down the hall is not stealing his job.
Maybe the best argument for doubling-down in education is Obama’s observation of American innovation history. Wright Brothers… Thomas Edison… Mark Zuckerberg? Either buy your kid a damn book or start buying renminbi.
Healthcare: Obama approached the topic carefully, which I suppose was necessary given the repeal vote that took place last week. I did like his challenge to the GOP to “improve” the bill – it’s tantamount to doing nothing for a party that has gone several years without an substantive policy decision. The American attention span only lasts so long, and I suspect people are already getting bored with gratuitously lambasting a healthcare bill that more-likely-than-not benefits them.
Defense: This was exactly what I wanted to hear. We’re out of Iraq and should be out of Afghanistan soon. Obama will trim military waste as much as he can without getting branded a traitor. He acknowledged the efforts of our troops and moved on. Thank god the tiresome Bush-era rhetoric of terrorism and evil has been (mostly) laid to rest. John Boehner’s scowling, orange face in the background assured me that we’re on the right track.
Infrastructure: Though I will never understand Obama’s special fascination with high-speed railways, he’s right to point out that too little of our bloated budget goes to useful infrastructure. I’m a little skeptical of the notion that improving our infrastructure will help attract businesses back to the United States in droves (especially when there is abundant cheap, skilled labor AND infrastructure abroad), but there is no moral justification in 2011 for a child in Iowa to facebook by dial-up.
America: There were some nice moments to counteract the often heavy-handed treatment of America’s shortcomings. I liked the throwback to the Chilean Miner crisis and the unsung hero who helped them survive. I would have also liked a shoutout to the people doggedly digging tarballs out of the gulf, but I suppose that recalling that time we accidentally destroyed the Gulf of Mexico would have been a major buzzkill.
Extraneous Bread and Butter Liberal Shit that I Love:
1. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: I’m glad Obama took a moment to acknowledge the end of DADT. I’m hoping he takes a few more strides on gay rights before his term is over. It’s about time.
2. Nuclear Disarmament: I can’t help but see this issue as a pipe dream and something Obama quietly fancies as a part of his legacy, but maybe people will eventually see the logic of having fewer nukes around.
3. Taxes: Although Obama caved on extending Bush Tax Cuts last year, I’m glad he stuck in a line about ending them eventually. I understand that the tax cuts are popular with the mega-wealthy who dictate public policy, but I don’t quite understand why people get so angry at the wealthy reverting to their 1990s tax brackets.
4. American Muslims: Obama had a nice line in support of American Muslims. They took a lot of flak this year over the bullshit 9/11 Mosque Controversy. I thought America was better than reverting to thinly-veiled xenophobia at the behest of conservative leaders manipulating the memory of 9/11 for political gain. For shame.
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All in all, I’m feeling better about the Obama Presidency after this State of the Union. At the end of last year’s post, I compared the first year of the Obama Presidency to a root canal. If I may continue the strained dental analogy, this past year felt more like an overdue cleaning– painful at times but ultimately satisfying. Here’s hoping for six more.