January 29, 2010
In what appeared to be a magnanimous gesture of outreach to his opponents in his State of the Union Address on Wednesday night, President Obama offered to seek common ground with the Republicans in Congress. What struck me about the speech, however, was the jarring dissonance between the conciliatory words he read from his teleprompter and the smug, condescending attitude evinced by his facial expressions. At a time when a more prudent leader might have displayed more sober acknowledgment of his own past mistakes, as dramatized by recent electoral setbacks, Obama just couldn't resist needling the Republicans. Perhaps he was trying to ease tensions with a little light-hearted humor, but his forced grin suggested he was deeply angry at them. A little more humility and/or a little less jesting would have gone a long way. Here are some of the speech highlights, taken from the transcript at whitehouse.gov, followed by my "fair and balanced" comments:
It's because of this spirit -- this great decency and great strength -- that I have never been more hopeful about America's future than I am tonight.
The President started off on the right foot, at least, using his phenomenal grace and charm to try to lift the spirits of the downtrodden nation. He fulfilled that presidential duty quite well. Then he went on to the core economic issues:
And if there's one thing that has unified Democrats and Republicans, and everybody in between, it's that we all hated the bank bailout. I hated it -- (applause.) I hated it. You hated it. It was about as popular as a root canal. (Laughter.)
But when I ran for President, I promised I wouldn't just do what was popular -- I would do what was necessary.
Likewise, he used a good opportunity to emphasize what the two parties agree on, and the root canal analogy may be apt -- if the bailouts ultimately achieve their goals to make the pain worth enduring, that is. But when Obama claimed to acting without regard to political consequences or poll numbers, his credibility started to wear thin. Then he talked about how to get that money back:
To recover the rest, I've proposed a fee on the biggest banks. (Applause.) Now, I know Wall Street isn't keen on this idea. But if these firms can afford to hand out big bonuses again, they can afford a modest fee to pay back the taxpayers who rescued them in their time of need.
True enough, sadly. Those banks accepted the money, and now they are semi-socialized wards of the state. As for his stimulus programs, widely criticized as ineffective, the President remained steadfastly upbeat:
Because of the steps we took, there are about two million Americans working right now who would otherwise be unemployed.
Here Obama is treading on very thin factual ice: estimates of the effects of policy on aggregate employment are notoriously unreliable, because of the complex interactions in our economic system, and in this case there are widespread reports that local officials were obliged to inflate the job figures they reported back to the government.
I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change. But here's the thing -- even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy-efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future -- because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation.
It is hard to avoid the impression that he was mocking his Republican opponents for refusing to believe in the True Religion of Global Warming. It certainly didn't win over any new converts to Obama's brand of bipartisanship from the Republican side of the aisle. It was a virtual carbon copy of Sen. Tim Wirth's famous remark in 1988, when he was accompanied by Al Gore. (See the "Global warming update" section of this piece below.) On a more positive note, the President made a big pitch for foreign trade, resisting calls for protectionism:
We will double our exports over the next five years, an increase that will support two million jobs in America. (Applause.) To help meet this goal, we're launching a National Export Initiative that will help farmers and small businesses increase their exports, and reform export controls consistent with national security.
Then he went on to education, one of those issues where almost everyone agrees, it seems:
Still, in this economy, a high school diploma no longer guarantees a good job. ... [Hence the need to] make college more affordable. ... [But we also should forgive college debts] because in the United States of America, no one should go broke because they chose to go to college.
Huh??? Is the glaring contradiction between those two statements not obvious to everyone? Or at least obvious to everyone with a high school education? Why on earth should we push more people into college if there is not a solid expectation that it will pay off for them in the long run? Next the President addressed the most difficult issue of all, the centerpiece of his rise to power, and quite possibly the reason for his decline.
[B]y now it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics. (Laughter.) I took on health care because of the stories I've heard from Americans with preexisting conditions whose lives depend on getting coverage; patients who've been denied coverage; families -- even those with insurance -- who are just one illness away from financial ruin.
So he's basing public policy on anecdotal evidence? That makes no sense at all -- especially given his track record of avoiding tough choices. (See above.) I'm not saying that compassion should have no part in policy, simply that it should be subordinated to a rational assessment of likely costs, benefits, and issues of equity. But Obama persists in ignoring critics and treats this issue as an overriding moral imperative:
Here's what I ask Congress, though: Don't walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people. (Applause.) Let's get it done. Let's get it done. (Applause.)
Then he turned to the uncomfortable reality that the government's financial footing is shaky at best, making such ambitious reforms very difficult to carry out. The President recounted the economic emergency measures undertaken by his predecessor in the final months of his term, and outlined a new, more realistic approach to fiscal policy:
Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. (Applause.) Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don't. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will.
The problem is, of course, that discretionary spending is only about one-sixth of the total Federal budget, and it is going to take a huge amount of belt-tightening to make much of a difference. The only way to restore fiscal sanity is to make radical reform in those three big entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. (As any economically aware person should know, adding a new Federal entitlement such as health care at a time when existing entitlements are leading us toward national bankruptcy is sheer folly.) And as Jay Leno noted last night, the average cash-strapped American family just uses their Visa card anyway. Hello, China? Would Obama or the Democratic leaders dare to do that? Not bloody likely. That, of course, is why he proposed a "bipartisan fiscal commission" to make the tough choices out of the public spotlight, behind closed doors:
Now, yesterday, the Senate blocked a bill that would have created this commission. So I'll issue an executive order that will allow us to go forward, because I refuse to pass this problem on to another generation of Americans.
As I stated last week, "creating a legislative agency by executive fiat is a flagrant violation of the whole principle of separation of powers." Once again, Obama is determined to do things his own way, no matter what the Constitution says.
... we have to recognize that we face more than a deficit of dollars right now. We face a deficit of trust -- deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years. To close that credibility gap we have to take action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue -- to end the outsized influence of lobbyists; to do our work openly; to give our people the government they deserve. *
* Emphasis added; that closely resembles the title of a book my father wrote: The Government We Deserve. More trouble came when the President took on a controversial legal issue (the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, decided just last week) and issued a shockingly blunt repudiation of the Supreme Court, whose members were seated just a few feet in front of him:
With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests -- including foreign corporations -- to spend without limit in our elections.
TV cameras showed Associate Justice Samuel Alito scowling after Obama said that, and mouthing the words "That's not true." Evidently Alito shares the same opinion of Obama that Rep. Joe Wilson expressed last September: "You lie!" Seriously, though, that was one of the most painful moments in the entire speech -- the President of the United States directly challenging the validity of a Supreme Court ruling that was just made. Such an overt verbal criticism of the highest court in such a dignified setting is almost unprecedented in U.S. history, and constitutes a monumental act of disrespect -- "due deference" notwithstanding. In today's Washington Post, my former colleague at Sweet Briar College, Dr. Barbara Perry, was quoted as saying, "I did think it was an unfortunate display for both branches. ... I'll leave the individuals aside."
Having insulted the judicial branch, Obama went on to lament the partisan divide in Washington, saying he "will not give up on trying to change the tone of our politics." (???) Then he spent a few obligatory minutes on foreign policy, culminating with a warning to the theocratic government in Iran, which is busy figuring out how to making nuclear bombs:
And as Iran's leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: They, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise.
To shore up support among the activists who put him into office, Obama declared that he would seek legislation to end all remaining restrictions on gays serving in the military, and to ensure equal pay for women. Neither of those initiatives will come easily, however. Clearly, President Obama remains frustrated that everything is not going according to plan:
I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I could do it alone.
Well, those sky-high expectations were exactly why millions of people voted for you in the first place! Notably absent from Obama's speech was any mention of his far-reaching goal of "transforming the nation." (See March 1, 2009.) In sum, the President has his work cut out for him as he tries to re-calibrate his agenda to fit the world of objective reality, so as to reduce the inevitable popular disappointment to a tolerable level. That readjustment will be a truly monumental undertaking in itself.
I happened to hear Rush Limbaugh's take on the speech on Thursday afternoon, and it was about as brutal as you might expect: He sees Obama as a petulant, narcissistic man-child who can barely contain his rage at those who refuse to follow him. I don't think I would go that far, and it will take years of study by psychologists and historians to come up with a clear assessment of Obama's character and personality. Limbaugh did make an interesting observation, however: unlike most past presidents, Obama never really stopped to characterize the state of the union overall, other than to lament the continuing economic hardships.
Less than two weeks after his inauguration, Gov. Bob McDonnell was chosen to give the Republican response, and he measured up fully, in terms of style, poise, and substance. Unlike past responses by opposition leaders, this speech was given before a joint session of the Virginia General Assembly, with other invited guests. Here is what I consider the highlight of his speech, from soturesponse.com
Top-down one-size fits all decision making should not replace the personal choices of free people in a free market, nor undermine the proper role of state and local governments in our system of federalism. As our Founders clearly stated, and we Governors understand, government closest to the people governs best.
Well put! Before the speech, Virginia Democratic Chairman Dick Cranwell said, "My view is, this governor ought to be at home taking care of Virginia," seeming to forget the many out-of-state trips taken by former Governor Tim Kaine on behalf of the Democratic Party. (See Washington Post.) Actually, McDonnell was at home, in Richmond, and the point of his speech was precisely to take care of Virginia's own business, minimizing outside interference.
President Obama's statement about global warming sounded familiar, and after some checking I realized that it was an eerily close match to Sen. Tim Wirth's famous remark in 1988 (when he was accompanied by Al Gore):
Even if the theory of global warming is wrong, to have approached global warming as if it is real means energy conservation, so we will be doing the right thing anyway in terms of economic policy and environmental policy.
(SOURCE: "Planet Gore" at nationalreview.com; Daniel Sarewitz and Roger Pielke Jr. at theatlantic.com; and a similar quote from 1990 in Science under Siege by Michael Fumento) That can't be purely coincidental, can it?
And to bring this farcical saga up to date, NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen has endorsed a new (2009) book by British author Keith Farnish, Time's Up, which calls on environmental activists to engage in widespread sabotage aiming at the destruction of industrial civilization, as the only way to stop global warming. (!!!???) I guess this means that the exploration of space by humans will soon come to an end. For more, see Prison Planet.