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.