One liberal trope after the speech, voiced by Chrystia Freedland of the Financial Times on Charlie Rose, is that Obama is putting Republican politicians on notice he will go after them as the do-nothing impeders of progress. Republicans should pray this is the case, and it may be the case. The model here would be Harry Truman’s 1948 war on the “Do Nothing Congress.” The problem is that Truman was running against a Republican Congress. Obama will be asking the country to believe that some weird amalgam of a minority party in the House and Senate and the Fox News Channel is mystically interfering with the will of the people. The delusion that a the president in charge of a party with a 50-seat majority in the House and a nine-seat advantage in the Senate can successfully claim that the minority is in charge is just that—a delusion. You don’t have to be following these matters closely to know that Democrats won a blowout two years ago and that this is their political moment. If Obama cannot get what he wants, everybody will know it will be due to his inability to convince the country of the rightness of his policy aims. That liberals like Freedland and Andrew Sullivan can’t see this, because they too are fogged over by their rage with a conservative vitality they did not expect, offers up the tantalizing possibility that the White House will be similarly blinded to reality, and will march with authority and vigor right over a political cliff.
Posts For: January 27, 2010
The very early consensus in the mushy mainstream is that, yes, Obama did himself good tonight. (Not so in National Review’s The Corner, whose writers heard a far more acidic, petulant, and nasty speech than I did.) Given that the only memorable passage was his lovely invocation of American optimism and toughness, I’m not sure how it will. There wasn’t much to rally behind, or toward, or about. And he gave his own party no cover. Indeed, he seemed to ask them to shoulder a lot of the blame for America’s anger and cynicism, in effect offering them as a sacrificial lamb for his own standing.
John, you get no argument from me. I’m hard pressed to think of a better response to a SOTU. In part it is his tone — calm, relaxed, and conversational. He has the knack for making very conservative policies seems not conservative per se, but simply common sense. He did not pick a fight with Obama but with the big government agenda and with his stance on terrorism (citing Sen. Scott Brown). You can see why he won Virginia by nearly 20 points and why he was selected tonight. You can also see why he’ll be on the VP list for 2012.
There were a few in Obama’s speech. First, he didn’t mention the “peace process.” Hooray! It is moribund and unproductive and he should give George Mitchell a much needed rest. Second, he seems to be serious about repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It is hard to see why this would help him. His moderate and conservative congressional allies won’t want to vote on a divisive issue, and if he does not achieve yet another “priority” what will his base say? Third, a smart reader asks whether in a SOTU a president has ever, as Obama did, attacked the Supreme Court in that fashion. I think not. It is, especially for a constitutional “scholar” rather craven. Fourth, he is setting himself up for a mighty big policy cul-de-sac when it gets to the Bush tax cuts. He’s said he hasn’t raised taxes on anyone but he sure is planning to do so. How does he wiggle out of this one? And finally, he avoided the disastrous Christmas Day episode, Guantanamo Bay and the KSM trial. Perhaps he is leaving room to escape.
The biggest surprise of all is really no surprise. He is the same unalloyed liberal who got himself in deep trouble. He thinks more of the same is the way out. We’ll see if he’s right.
I have to say, Jen, this is a pretty good debut on the national stage for Bob McDonnell, especially compared to the egg laid by Bobby Jindal last year. In fact, I can’t think of a better response.
The more I think of it, the more I think Obama made a disastrous mistake tonight by saying he wanted to forgive student college debt far more quickly if debtors went into “public service.” This could well be considered another version of the Louisiana Purchase or the Cornhusker Bribe—an effort to privilege one class of workers above another. Of course, it will never happen, as it would be impossible to effect (how long would a student have to work in “public service”? how would the term be defined? etc). But even suggesting it makes it easy to advance the populist case that Obama has made it clear he sides with government workers over private-sector workers, and that can very easily be used as a weapon against him, and deservedly so.
His delivery is fluid and he looks remarkably relaxed. No one much pays attention to these, especially after an ultra-long SOTU, and the responder looks puny by comparison. That said McDonnell is doing about as well as one can. This seems to strike the right tone:
“In the past year, over three million Americans have lost their jobs, yet the Democratic Congress continues deficit spending, adding to the bureaucracy, and increasing the national debt on our children and grandchildren. The amount of this debt is on pace to double in five years, and triple in ten. The federal debt is already over $100,000 per household. This is simply unsustainable. The President’s partial freeze on discretionary spending is a laudable step, but a small one. The circumstances of our time demand that we reconsider and restore the proper, limited role of government at every level.”
Republicans likely don’t want to oppose what is a baby step, but neither should they fail to point out the magnitude of the debt Obama has racked up.
David Brooks makes the point that much of the policy mentioned here—tax cuts, pay-as-you-go, nuclear power, offshore drilling—was far more moderate than his administration has been thus far. So was it a pivot? Almost certainly not. He was claiming that the mantle of moderation had characterized his administration thus far. And it’s hard to believe that he’s going to mention nuclear power or offshore drilling ever again, or pay-as-you-go. Tax cuts you’ll hear.
If the purpose of the speech was to pivot to the center, then he did not accomplish his aim. His laundry list of goverment programs and his double-down statement on healthcare, albeit weak on detail and vauge on timing, do not evidence any concern that his problem has been substantive. Indeed, he says his greatest failing was a communications problem.
But what is most striking was the lack of attention and serious expression on foreign policy and national security. We are at war. We have been attacked. And he gives a remarkably cursory few graphs at the end of a very long speech, practically ignoring the looming Iranian threat. But this is who Obama is and has always been: a statist liberal who cares not so much about foreign policy, only grudingly devoting time and resources when it invades his day. For those perpetually hoping for a different president than the one we have had for a year, they must be disappointed indeed.
His concluding peroration was pretty dazzling:
In the end, it is our ideals, our values, that built America – values that allowed us to forge a nation made up of immigrants from every corner of the globe; values that drive our citizens still. Every day, Americans meet their responsibilities to their families and their employers. Time and again, they lend a hand to their neighbors and give back to their country. They take pride in their labor, and are generous in spirit. These aren’t Republican values or Democratic values they’re living by; business values or labor values. They are American values.
Unfortunately, too many of our citizens have lost faith that our biggest institutions – our corporations, our media, and yes, our government – still reflect these same values. Each of these institutions are full of honorable men and women doing important work that helps our country prosper. But each time a CEO rewards himself for failure, or a banker puts the rest of us at risk for his own selfish gain, people’s doubts grow. Each time lobbyists game the system or politicians tear each other down instead of lifting this country up, we lose faith. The more that TV pundits reduce serious debates into silly arguments, and big issues into sound bites, our citizens turn away.
No wonder there’s so much cynicism out there. No wonder there’s so much disappointment.
I campaigned on the promise of change – change we can believe in, the slogan went. And right now, I know there are many Americans who aren’t sure if they still believe we can change – or at least, that I can deliver it.
But remember this – I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I can do it alone. Democracy in a nation of three hundred million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That’s just how it is.
Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths. We can do what’s necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what’s best for the next generation.
But I also know this: if people had made that decision fifty years ago or one hundred years ago or two hundred years ago, we wouldn’t be here tonight. The only reason we are is because generations of Americans were unafraid to do what was hard; to do what was needed even when success was uncertain; to do what it took to keep the dream of this nation alive for their children and grandchildren.
Our administration has had some political setbacks this year, and some of them were deserved. But I wake up every day knowing that they are nothing compared to the setbacks that families all across this country have faced this year. And what keeps me going – what keeps me fighting – is that despite all these setbacks, that spirit of determination and optimism – that fundamental decency that has always been at the core of the American people – lives on.
That’s good speechifying.
This is the sum total of what he has to say about the most acute existential threat to the West:
“To reduce our stockpiles and launchers, while ensuring our deterrent, the United States and Russia are completing negotiations on the farthest-reaching arms control treaty in nearly two decades. And at April’s Nuclear Security Summit, we will bring forty-four nations together behind a clear goal: securing all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world in four years, so that they never fall into the hands of terrorists. These diplomatic efforts have also strengthened our hand in dealing with those nations that insist on violating international agreements in pursuit of these weapons. That is why North Korea now faces increased isolation, and stronger sanctions – sanctions that are being vigorously enforced. That is why the international community is more united, and the Islamic Republic of Iran is more isolated. And as Iran’s leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: they, too, will face growing consequences.”
Does he believe this? Does he thing that the international community is more united or that Iran has gotten another year under its belt? His “face growing consequences” formulation could not, if he tried, be a lamer statement of our intentions to deprive the mullahs of nukes. I think we know how unserious he is on this topic. And the mullahs do too.
Obama finally gets to the war for our civilization which we are fighting. “As we take the fight to al Qaeda, we are responsibly leaving Iraq to its people. As a candidate, I promised that I would end this war, and that is what I am doing as President.” We are leaving in victory and it is a great triumph. But that goes unmentioned. Why can he not acknowledge that historic achievement?
“Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests – including foreign corporations – to spend without limit in our elections. Well I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people, and that’s why I’m urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong.” That bit of chicanery ignores of course that this is about the First Amendment. What “wrong” is that?
Then he decries earmarks. He signed a spending bill with 9,000 of them in it.
You have to be without shame to deliver this sort of stuff.
He wants us to “reject the false choice”!
Now he says the freeze won’t take effect until next year. Oh. A laugh erupts. Then he complains that in the eight years preceding him we got ourselves into a huge deficit. And ignoring the mound of debt he has incurred, he calls for “common sense.” His delivery may be crisp, John. But the substance is downright incoherent.
….”that’s how budgeting works.” But he’ll take credit for it now, thank you.
For a president who wants to get credit for freezing part of the budget he’s got lots of ideas for spending money. It is a laundry list to end all lists of government programs and activities. And finally after all that he insists we still need health-care. He says he didn’t choose to take it on to get some legislative victory under his belt. ( Can he say this with no hint of embarrassment?) He says he didn’t do it because it was popular. Well, it was more popular when he started. He takes a detour to thank his wife for taking on childhood obesity. (Which suggests that she was more effective than everyone else in the room.) He takes responsibility for not communicating better. It’s just a communication problem, you know. He — the great orator — couldn’t get it done? So he’s not walking away. Congress should get on with it. But only as “temperatures cool.” Sounds a little vauge. But now Congress, get to it. Sooner or later.
At least one can say this: This is the best-delivered speech he’s given in months. He’s crisp and fluid and comfortably informal.
And let me say this: If you’re having trouble getting onto the site, yes, we’re having some problems here.
He’s still claiming that adopting a plan that will cover 30 million more people will lead to $1 trillion in savings. That’s the crux of the political crisis he faces on health care. Ordinary people know this is a lie.
…in 20 years’ time, and only 10 percent of income to be paid to cover student loans. So why would anybody actually pay when they know in 20 years they’ll have their debt forgiven?
And the notion that the debt forgiveness should be accelerated to 10 years if you go into public service is a particular outrage. So government work is given taxpayer privilege?