My thoughts on the Republican response are here.
Interpreting the State of the Union (SotU) address is kremlinology on par with deciphering what the North Korean regime really thinks, what Sarah Palin’s honest policy preferences are, or what Paris Hilton fans actually see in her. American politics is not my academic area, but I worked for Congress for a bit and teach US politics regularly (almost all political science professors do). So here are a few take-aways…
1. SotUs as a tonic for US democracy’s legitimacy crisis.
SotUs are of course more about the drama and symbolism of the US Constitution in all its majesty. Just about everyone of any significance manages to show up – all 3 branches in their entirety, plus the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the cabinet, the First Lady and all the top staff of those assorted figures. As an object lesson to the citizenry this is helpful, as you get a chance (only once a year unfortunately) to see all the people who are representing you, crafting decisions in your name, and spending your money. In fact, this is rather healthy as exercise of democratic practice. John Q Citizen gets a chance to see his government in action and its trappings of glory (or not). Obama mentioned the crisis of legitimacy of American government (the idea that Americans unheathily loathe their government for its extreme partisanship, constant gridlock, and chronic capture by special interests). Seeing the full retinue of government doing its thing on national TV for all to watch is a good antidote to that. Foreign Addendum: It is also an excellent ‘teaching moment’ for foreigners who a) find the US government unbelievably disaggregated and complex, and/or b) live in an authoritarian society.
2. The speech seemed listless and grab-baggy, or maybe just down-to-earth after W.
I didn’t leave with any one overriding idea. Bush 2 had three really memorable SotUs with easy-to-take-away one-liners: 2002 (axis of evil), 2003 (African yellowcake), 2005 (the US world-historic mission to spread freedom). Obama did not scale to those heights. Instead, it was a mish-mash of ideas and small-beer policy proposals, none of which really gripped me (more tax credits to make the tax code yet more indecipherable – bleh).
My guess is that the lawyer in him is wary of Bush-style extravagance. And it is true that Bush’s rhetorical flights were indeed memorable, but mostly because they were terrifying – a global long war for freedom and wildly unsubstantiated charges about Iraq, jihadism, etc. It is evidently Obama’s style to dial down expectations. But nevertheless, it drifted, and it felt tired. Like the Afghan surge speech in December, it didn’t rouse or convince me of much of anything. It glided through a series of topics without much serious discussion, and there was no central theme.
3. Another chance at serious debt/deficit discussion was passed up.
The ‘spending freeze’ has gotten much press, but honestly, it’s a gimmick. If the prez leaves out Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Defense (plus interest on the debt), he is left with less than 20% of the entire budget to ‘freeze.’ This is not serious. Forcing the FBI to hire one less secretary or pushing HHS to use fewer paperclips is pleasant but meaningless budgetarily. For decades presidents have tried to find budget savings in ‘waste, fraud and abuse’ (Reagan’s preferred locution), but to no avail. Clinton closed the budget primarily by keeping the big 1990 tax hike of Bush 1 and then pushing through his own in 1993. He also controlled the government’s size and used pay-as-you-go to force Congress to fund any new spending. W dropped all this and just borrowed while cutting taxes. The only way Obama can get the budget back in line is with a tax increase, unless he will go after the programs he excluded from his spending freeze. Particularly Defense needs to go on a diet.
In fact, Obama suggested a flippantness about the looming fiscal disaster when he deployed the disturbingly casual locution, ‘and while we’re at it, let’s cut this other tax too!’ Sure! Why not just chop all sorts of taxes? Wth difference does it make? When are we going to talk seriously in the US about the need to a tax hike as the only realistic way to balance the budget? One of the biggest idiot lines of the Bush presidency was when he said we could reduce the deficit without raising taxes. If you want to have functioning government, you can’t just keep voting yourself tax cuts and spending expansions. Otherwise you’ll look like California. In fact, in the 15 minutes or so devoted to the budget deficit, the only serious proposal was the restoration of ‘pay-as-you-go.’
4. Foreign policy’s a throw-away.
For all the folks who claim the US is an empire, we sure are an introverted one judging by this talk. Foreign policy got less than 10 minutes, despite the ongoing GWoT that is in fact in increasing under Obama. About the only thing useful was the oblique hint that Obama will push for more trade (cleverly repackaged for the speech as ‘more exports’) with Korea and Latin America. But even this too has obvious problems, as just about everyone today is trying to export more as a route out of the crisis. If Obama thinks that he can pull the US into a current account surplus, he’s dreaming. Most of America’s big trading partners (Germany, Japan, India, Korea, China, Taiwan) run a surplus on the back on the voracious American consumer. Understandably, Obama now wants them to return the favor (his ‘National Export Initiative’), but if he thinks mercantilists in the Asia are going to suddenly import more, forget it. If there is one thing I’ve learned living in Asia, it’s that governments out here are like the Spanish Habsburgs on trade. They’d rather brutally punish their own citizens through higher and higher trade barriers than tolerate any serious trade deficits with the US. Is this unfair to Americans? Absolutely. But it is also how they play the game here, so forget some export promoted US recovery with Asians buying our stuff.
Beyond this, Obama gave us nothing new on the Middle East or NK – just more ‘I’m tough’ schtick to keep the right-wing blogosphere from exploding.