Another Unassuming State of the Union that Ducks the Debt Issue


Obama Haiti Earthquake

For my take on last year’s state of the union, go here and here for the Republican response.

I thought this year’s speech was pretty good – not exciting or gripping, but fairly solid. This seems to be an Obama characteristic, perhaps in response to George W. Bush’s penchant for soaring metaphysics in his SotUs. Increasingly I admire that. I knew the W’s SotUs were generally theater, but Obama’s feel more professional. My sense is that Obama the lawyer believes words matter more than W, who thought instincts mattered more than troublesome vocabulary.

Here are a few thoughts:

1. For a country supposed to be the ‘global leader,’ the president focused overwhelmingly on domestic policy. I imagine this is electorally-driven, but the foreign policy bit was painfully short. Most of it focused on the GWoT, although Obama maddeningly refuses to call it that. But there was little on the real future challenge to American power – the rise of Asia and a whole clutch of middle income states elsewhere that all constrain America’s freedom to move. Barnett calls the wealthy East Asian tier the “new core” of the global economy (the ‘old core’ being the North Atlantic). I heard nothing about how to react to these risers, should we accommodate, contain, ignore, etc. Instead, we got yet more bromides about how no one in the room would rather live in another country and how great America is. Sigh. Pandering to Americans’ nationalism is not analysis, doesn’t slow China’s growth, doesn’t get US kids better educated in math and science,  doesn’t diminish our addiction to Chinese money and Saudi oil, etc. The world is getting more crowded and wealthier, and the sovereign debt crisis in the West is reducing our ability to push others around (a bad thing if you are a westerner, good if you are not). We need to think about our place in a more equal world, but Obama gave you nothing on that. Instead, it was how he cleaned up W’s messes.

The GOP responses were even worse: Michelle Bachmann had the gall to recite Madeleine Albright’s old expression, ‘the indispensible nation,’ sure to anger any foreign listener, and her description of the battle of Iwo Jima seems informed by video game posturing, not history. (The battle was very late in the war; the Japanese were outnumbered and outgunned, without air or naval support, had no hope of relief, and were fighting for an obviously lost cause. Kinda seems more like they were really courageous, huh? Oops! Maybe she should stick the standard issue right-wing example of American heroism – Normandy.)

2. Obama really tried to reach out. It speaks to how visceral the Republican opposition has become that Obama tried so hard to pull in Republicans. But I don’t believe the GOP bought it. Speaker Boehner sitting behind him could barely get out a smile, smirking and looking bored most of the time, a pretty poor showing to my mind. His obvious disinterest and smirks reinforced to me yet again that this GOP loathes this president – he’s a newbie, funny looking, maybe not a citizen, a socialist, etc. And Bachmann’s Tea Party response was downright disingenuous about the deficits on Obama’s watch. As with last year’s GOP response, there was no admission that the alternative to those huge deficits was another Great Depression, no admission that W started the TARP/bailout process, no admission that unemployment would probably 15% or more without the stimulus and bailout. I want balanced budgets too, but it is simply mythic to ignore that W created a huge amount of the debt while the economy was growing, and that Obama had no choice but to spend madly, because the alternative was catastrophe. I am disgusted by the give-not-an-inch trench warfare the GOP is practicing against a fairly technocratic, not ideological, Democrat.

3. There were lots of subtle hints about how ‘diverse’ or ‘multicultural’ America is. He mentioned how there are Hindu soldiers in the US (which remark must be a first in SotU history). He broke Americans down into the standard ‘5 color’ scheme – white, black, Latino, Asian, and Native Americans (so where do those Hindu soldiers fit in?). He talked about the idea that binds the ‘American family,’ presumably in response to the idea of an ethnic nation. American Muslims are loyal to the country (even though very few Americans believe that). I suspect this served to remind the Tea party, which is sort of a white conservative reaction to change, that non-whites are entrenched in American life. It is also probably a personal response to those endless attacks on him that flirt with race and nationality to delegitimize him. I find all this helpful in beating back Tea Party cultural panic, but also debilitating. I dislike the open recitation of ethnic fault lines in American discourse, because it serves to reinforce them and delegitimize things like border security as ‘racism.’ It also reinforces the noxious disunifying narrative that American is a salad bowl of nationalities rather than a melting pot. Enough! We get it already.

4. Once again, no one said anything meaningful about the debt. I am getting tired of raising this issue. I have been saying it almost since the beginning of my blog two years ago, and gave the same response a year ago. Here are a few basic principles to remember amid all the empty, if overheated, talk about reducing the deficit and eventually paying down the debt:

a. The required cuts are MASSIVE – around $1.4 trillion just for the deficit (which is bigger than the entire South Korean economy!). So forget all this cute stuff about discretionary pay freezes for government workers and such. That is a start, but a really minor one. Getting real reductions out of discretionary will likely require closing down some portion of the government altogether – that means abandoning some government services almost completely, like the Department of Education, e.g. This will almost certainly not happen.

b. The real money is in 4 places: Defense, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. These represent about 70% of the budget – around $3 trillion. That is where the real conflict is, and Obama completely avoided it. All that heroic rhetoric about the guy who saved the Chilean miners was just flim-flam for the real part of the speech everyone wanted to hear, and he flubbed it – as did the two Republican responders. The budget issue is no further along than it was last year. The rest is just atmospherics to get re-elected.

c. Tax hikes are needed to fix the fiscus. The political unwillingness to admit this is simply inexcusable, especially by the GOP. No one has the courage to admit what everyone knows – that the US government needs a lot more money from its citizens. No one knows how to find $1.4 T in savings in the budget without some cut that would fundamentally alter US identity. That is, to cut $1.4T would so deeply cut into particular government services that it would render the post-cut government unrecognizable to a large chunk of the electorate. For example, we could balance the budget if we chopped the military in half and simply eliminated Social Security. But the former would end American superpowerdom as Americans have come to know (and love) it, while the latter would remove a service (retirement assistance) that most Americans now understand to be as fundamental to our way of life as the First Amendment. My point is that the cuts required, in lieu of any tax hikes at all, would force a fundamental reimaging of what the US government is and does. Unless there is a social revolution to support a dramatically smaller government – and no, the Tea Party is not that because so many of its members are Social Security recipients and nationalists committed to a huge military – then the only alternative consonant with Americans’ perceptions of what their government is, is a tax hike (and a fairly large one too).

See also Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post on the debt/deficit; I find him regularly superb on this issue.

12 thoughts on “Another Unassuming State of the Union that Ducks the Debt Issue

  1. Dr. Bob you are a little of on this. Bachman gave the TeaParty response. Ryan (R-WI) the new budget committee chairman gave the Republican response aired live. Bachman’s wasn’t. There were in effect two responses. Interesting.

  2. I agree with a lot of this, but don’t understand what seems a tad like fetishizing the GWoT brand name. What’s so important about that name? It’s the policies that matter.

    This speech was classic Obama – staking out the reasonable middle ground, generating a big GOP freak-out leading to more right-wing extremism, which alienates them from the center. A center that, when I was in college, the GOP used to hold.

  3. Dr. Bob:

    I am also kinda confused about your Iwo Jima (I watched maybe 10% of this thing last night so I have no Idea what Bachman was saying). Iwo Jima almost broke the United States Marine Corps. One of the most costly battles in Marine Corps history. Also it took over one month for the Marines to secure Iwo Jima with huge casualties. Admiral Nimitz watching the battle from the sea made his famous statement about the USMC. One of my drill instructors at Military School was a Marine who fought at Iwo. He told me that the island looked like a human scrap yard. Body parts everywhere. A not well known fact is that after Iwo, the US had practically run out of fresh Marine recruits. In effect the US was running out of Marines. Hollywood doesn’t show this. The US started re-training pilots to infantry Marines.

    Also, you seem to not give credit to the Japanese soldiers dug in at Iwo. Those brave warriors were living in vast tunnels that would make the VC jealous. Those Japanese soldiers fought to the last man and them some. Unlike their German counterpart, the Japanese rarely waved the white flag. These are the worst people to fight. I remember at Marine Corps bootcamp we were told if, for some reason, we had to engage in hand to hand combat that we were having a “very bad day”.

    It is like fist fighting someone who just won’t give up no matter that you are winning the fight. All they are trying to accomplish is the lucky punch. I know, I have been in there on several occasions.

    Dr. Bob sorry to nit-pick but I always find your analysis of military affairs rather McNamaraish. In that you plug in statistical facts a la political science model. You omit the entire Clausewitzian aspect of war. Why is that? You omit the “human factor” which is that reason why the Japanese, although out gunned with no air-power, were able to hold on that rock for over one month. They bled the us.

    After that the US Marines assaulted the island of Okinawa. It seems that all the US Marines did in WWII was one big D Day operation for three years.

    Sorry to go off track. I was just curious about your take on one of the most devastating military battles in US and Japanese history. I wonder how a Japanese war veteran would feel reading your take on Iwo? That would be interesting.

  4. Dr. Bob:

    I thought about this some-more and I am just aghast. I am no fan of Bachman and as I stated, do not know in what context she spoke about Iwo. However your characterization is troubling. Iwo Jima has an area of about 8 square miles and it took over 30,000 US Marines to take it. The battle lasted more than one month because the Japanese were to tenacious and dug in. The US Marines took tremendous casualties, a classic study in siege warfare and you compared it to video a game and a Hollywood movie? Not only that, but you questioned the mettle of those US Marines and Japanese soldiers who fought on Iwo. The Clint Eastwood movie “Letters From Iwo Jima” sought to depict the Japanese soldier on Iwo. What they were going through in the face of certain death. One doesn’t form their perception of the complexities of war by watching a Hollywood movie. Those guys were bombed for days before the US Marine invasion and still didn’t give up. They still came out of the tunnels and attacked the US Marines day after day.

    Also, not to disparage D-Day in Normandy, an equally valiant act of determination by the allies, the US lost more men on Iwo Jima than the allies did on D-Day in Normandy.

    The biggest error that one can make in studying war is to negate the “Human Factor” that, in my view, carries more weight than all other factors. According to your analysis, the battle was a walk in the park. The US should have taken an area of 8 square miles in five hours. After all, the technological and firepower advantage was with the US forces.

    Having said that, I don’t think that politicians should reference Iwo Jima for political posturing either. That insults those brave warriors both US and Japanese who gave so much on that ROCK.

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