Commentary Magazine


Topic: State of the Union address

Three GOPs? No. Just One Opposition Party

It doesn’t matter how uninspired President Obama’s State of the Union speech turned out to be. The contrast between the pomp and circumstance of what is accorded the American equivalent of Queen Elizabeth’s annual visit to Westminster to open Parliament makes any opposition responses seem pale by comparison. If the official response by Washington state’s Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers wasn’t a flop like most of her predecessors, nor did it offer an in-depth refutation of the president, or anything more than a thumbnail sketch of what it is the GOP believes. The fact that the Republicans have in recent years produced more than one response, with the Tea Party offering up one last night by Senator Mike Lee separate from that of the traditional GOP, with Senator Rand Paul deciding to speak too, only serves to reinforce the impression of a Republican Party that is both divided and incoherent.

This feeds into the mainstream media narrative that the Republicans’ problems in the wake of their 2012 defeat as well as the beating they took (and largely deserved) for shutting down the government last fall. As New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal wrote in a humorous putdown of the GOP, the three parties represented last night could be labeled the “Stepford party” (a sexist reference to McMorris Rodgers speaking for the GOP establishment), “the storm the castle party” (Mike Lee speaking for the Tea Party), and “the non-threatening insurgent party” (Rand Paul speaking on behalf of the Rand Paul party). Rosenthal even took the opportunity to pile on by taking a cheap shot at Republicans by terming the ugly threat made to a reporter last night by New York’s Rep. Michael Grimm as the “class clown response” to the president.

But the idea that the GOP is hopelessly divided and would be unable to govern even if they were given the chance is a misreading of the situation or, as in the case of the liberal ideologue Rosenthal, mere partisan hyperventilating. What we saw last night was not a contrast between a united party and one rent by schisms. Rather, it was an illustration of the difference between being in power and not being in power.

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It doesn’t matter how uninspired President Obama’s State of the Union speech turned out to be. The contrast between the pomp and circumstance of what is accorded the American equivalent of Queen Elizabeth’s annual visit to Westminster to open Parliament makes any opposition responses seem pale by comparison. If the official response by Washington state’s Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers wasn’t a flop like most of her predecessors, nor did it offer an in-depth refutation of the president, or anything more than a thumbnail sketch of what it is the GOP believes. The fact that the Republicans have in recent years produced more than one response, with the Tea Party offering up one last night by Senator Mike Lee separate from that of the traditional GOP, with Senator Rand Paul deciding to speak too, only serves to reinforce the impression of a Republican Party that is both divided and incoherent.

This feeds into the mainstream media narrative that the Republicans’ problems in the wake of their 2012 defeat as well as the beating they took (and largely deserved) for shutting down the government last fall. As New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal wrote in a humorous putdown of the GOP, the three parties represented last night could be labeled the “Stepford party” (a sexist reference to McMorris Rodgers speaking for the GOP establishment), “the storm the castle party” (Mike Lee speaking for the Tea Party), and “the non-threatening insurgent party” (Rand Paul speaking on behalf of the Rand Paul party). Rosenthal even took the opportunity to pile on by taking a cheap shot at Republicans by terming the ugly threat made to a reporter last night by New York’s Rep. Michael Grimm as the “class clown response” to the president.

But the idea that the GOP is hopelessly divided and would be unable to govern even if they were given the chance is a misreading of the situation or, as in the case of the liberal ideologue Rosenthal, mere partisan hyperventilating. What we saw last night was not a contrast between a united party and one rent by schisms. Rather, it was an illustration of the difference between being in power and not being in power.

The problem here isn’t that Republicans are particularly querulous—though there’s no denying the divisions in the party—or inept at messaging. Rather the schisms we observe on the right are the natural product of lacking one unifying figure.

The contrast between Tea Party conservatives and the more mainstream conservatives in congressional leadership positions is only in part ideological. There are issues on which the two seem to part ways on matters of principle—immigration being one example. But for the most part, the establishment and the castle-burners don’t seriously disagree on basic issues. Indeed, on most fiscal and social issues there are few strong disagreements. The schisms stem not from any genuine disagreement about dislike of big-government measures, taxes, and spending but on the tactics best suited to combat the Democrats. The establishment rightly wishes to govern and to pick its fights with the liberals to lay the groundwork for future electoral victories. The castle-burners are frustrated by past defeats and want to lash out at the system. Indeed, it was just such despair about the GOP struggle against ObamaCare—an issue on which there is a remarkable consensus, if not unanimity among Republicans—that led to the government shutdown.

As was the case last night, the Republicans were unable to speak with one voice during the shutdown while Democrats were able to rally around the White House. The result, as with the State of the Union, is that a congressional Republican Party that actually has as little divergence of views on a host of important issues as their Democratic opponents comes across as a band of savages tearing one  another to pieces.

The remedy for this is simple. Win a presidential election. Once in opposition, the Democratic Party, whose divisions are today papered over by their deference to the president, will seem as angry and divided as the GOP does today. Its leaders will—as the Republicans do now—ruthlessly maneuver in order to put themselves in the strongest position for the next presidential election. Republicans will be forced, as Democrats are today, to bow to their president’s wishes and to play defense for an administration whose popularity will largely determine their own fates at the next midterm election.

Of course to get back to that position, Republicans will have to deal with the fallout from the shutdown and the misrepresentation, pounded home by the liberal media, that the GOP is aloof from the concerns of women and Hispanic voters. But, as Democrats learned in 2008, one good presidential candidate can make up for a multitude of political faults. Though no one who fits that description was on display last night for the Republicans, those members of the GOP nursing their wounds from another dispiriting beating in the Republican response to the State of the Union should remember that all they have to do to change places with the Democrats is to find someone who can beat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

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The Difference Between Iran and the USSR

In what was an otherwise lackluster State of the Union speech last night as well as one that gave short shrift to foreign policy, it was no small irony that one of the most pointed passages was the section devoted to opposing additional sanctions on Iran. Repeating arguments he has made before, President Obama declared he would veto any measure that imposed new sanctions on the Islamist regime, even those only slated to go into effect after the scheduled six-month negotiating period had failed:

And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program — and rolled back parts of that program — for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium.

It’s not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

These negotiations will be difficult; they may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and we’re clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away. But these negotiations don’t rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

But these assertions about the interim argument aren’t merely exaggerations. They are false. The Iranian stockpile is not being eliminated and the inspections are not verifying that Iran isn’t working on a bomb. Just as importantly, the comparisons between his nuclear diplomacy and that of Kennedy or Reagan are specious. The Iranians are not as dangerous as the Soviet Union. But that’s precisely the reason his weak diplomacy, indeed, his abject appeasement, is so wrongheaded. Moreover, the even greater difference between those situations and this one has to do with the way America’s adversaries regard the U.S. The Russians knew both JFK and Reagan meant business. After five years of feckless diplomatic engagement, the Iranians have come to the opposite conclusion about Obama.

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In what was an otherwise lackluster State of the Union speech last night as well as one that gave short shrift to foreign policy, it was no small irony that one of the most pointed passages was the section devoted to opposing additional sanctions on Iran. Repeating arguments he has made before, President Obama declared he would veto any measure that imposed new sanctions on the Islamist regime, even those only slated to go into effect after the scheduled six-month negotiating period had failed:

And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program — and rolled back parts of that program — for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium.

It’s not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

These negotiations will be difficult; they may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and we’re clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away. But these negotiations don’t rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

But these assertions about the interim argument aren’t merely exaggerations. They are false. The Iranian stockpile is not being eliminated and the inspections are not verifying that Iran isn’t working on a bomb. Just as importantly, the comparisons between his nuclear diplomacy and that of Kennedy or Reagan are specious. The Iranians are not as dangerous as the Soviet Union. But that’s precisely the reason his weak diplomacy, indeed, his abject appeasement, is so wrongheaded. Moreover, the even greater difference between those situations and this one has to do with the way America’s adversaries regard the U.S. The Russians knew both JFK and Reagan meant business. After five years of feckless diplomatic engagement, the Iranians have come to the opposite conclusion about Obama.

The interim nuclear accord does require Iran to halt the installation of new centrifuges and to stop enriching uranium at higher weapons-grade levels. But the centrifuges are still turning and their output can easily be converted to use for a bomb after a short “breakout” period. Even more deceptive is the president’s description of the disposal of Iran’s stockpile of nuclear fuel. It is being converted into oxide powder, but that is not the same as elimination. To the contrary, it can be easily reconverted into its previous form and then enriched further to reach the levels necessary for use in a bomb.

Nor are the inspections anywhere close to being as intrusive as Obama described. In particular, the International Atomic Energy Agency is still unable to monitor Iran’s military nuclear research facilities. Indeed, the accord signed in November by Secretary of State Kerry didn’t even mention them.

But just as misleading is the analogy between Iran and the Soviet Union that the United States dealt with in the past.

The president is correct in distinguishing the Soviet Union, a nuclear power, from Iran, a potential one.  But that is exactly the reason that the president’s decision to discard the military and economic leverage the U.S. possessed in talks with Iran last fall was so profoundly dangerous. In doing so the president decided to not only loosen existing sanctions but to tacitly recognize Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium with a deal that allowed that activity to continue unabated even as the president deceitfully described the accord as freezing Iran’s program.

The reasoning behind this astonishing retreat was the very opposite of America’s negotiating tactics—especially under Reagan—with the Soviets. The current U.S. retreat is premised in a belief that Iran is too strong and too determined not to be pressured by sanctions into giving up its nuclear program.

If the Soviet Union negotiated with the U.S. and wound up ultimately reducing its nuclear stockpile, as Reagan demanded, rather than merely limiting their increase, it was because they understood that he could not be intimidated. The Soviets knew they were dealing with a principled president. But the interim agreement with Tehran has convinced the Iranians of just the opposite about Obama. Having thus far persuaded him to accept enrichment and reduce sanctions, they have every reason to think he will go even further to appease them.

The Kennedy precedent provides yet another cautionary tale. In his first meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at a summit in Vienna, Kennedy admitted that he was insufficiently prepared for dealing with the Russian and the result was far from satisfactory. Though Kennedy had rightly opposed pressure to evacuate Berlin, he later told the New York Times that Khrushchev had “beaten the hell out of me” and left the meeting convinced that JFK was a political lightweight. It was this impression of weakness that led the Soviets to underestimate Kennedy and led to further provocations in the form of the building of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

That is an unfortunate precedent for Obama, whose supine position toward Iran ill becomes the American president and has similarly convinced Iran’s leaders that they need not fear his occasional threats to use force against them. Given the weakness of his position, he should welcome measures such as the bipartisan sanctions bill that has the support of 58 senators that would strengthen his hand in the talks.

Instead, he threatens a veto lest the proposal upset his Iranian negotiating partners. Rather than confirming the seriousness of his purpose, this irresponsible passage in the State of the Union will only reaffirm the Iranians’ belief that they can stand up to the U.S. and set the stage for either an American retreat on the nuclear issue or a confrontation that might be avoided by exactly the Senate measure the president opposes.

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SOTU: Obama Goes Through the Motions

There was plenty of big talk in the 2014 State of the Union address. President Obama exhorted Americans to accept his baseless claim that the economy is reviving and urged them to believe his jarringly upbeat view of the nation’s future. He tried to sound assertive as he vowed to use executive orders to get his way if Congress didn’t give him what he wanted. He touted ObamaCare. And he closed with an inspiring story of a wounded Army Ranger. But there’s no mistaking that this was a speech given by a president mired in second-term doldrums. There were not only a total of zero new ideas; almost everything in it was recycled from past addresses including a grimly risible vow to close the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba that he has kept open throughout his presidency even though he’s been promising to close it since 2008.

Although everything in this message was poll-tested and designed to be popular, this State of the Union (SOTU) did nothing but reinforce the impression that the president is mechanically going through the motions. The press had been prepped to believe the president would come out swinging tonight, defying Congress and vowing to seize the reins of government into his own hands. But what the country heard instead was confirmation of what many had already suspected after a disastrous 2013 for the president: he has passed over the historic bridge from celebrated re-election to the status of an irrelevant lame-duck.

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There was plenty of big talk in the 2014 State of the Union address. President Obama exhorted Americans to accept his baseless claim that the economy is reviving and urged them to believe his jarringly upbeat view of the nation’s future. He tried to sound assertive as he vowed to use executive orders to get his way if Congress didn’t give him what he wanted. He touted ObamaCare. And he closed with an inspiring story of a wounded Army Ranger. But there’s no mistaking that this was a speech given by a president mired in second-term doldrums. There were not only a total of zero new ideas; almost everything in it was recycled from past addresses including a grimly risible vow to close the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba that he has kept open throughout his presidency even though he’s been promising to close it since 2008.

Although everything in this message was poll-tested and designed to be popular, this State of the Union (SOTU) did nothing but reinforce the impression that the president is mechanically going through the motions. The press had been prepped to believe the president would come out swinging tonight, defying Congress and vowing to seize the reins of government into his own hands. But what the country heard instead was confirmation of what many had already suspected after a disastrous 2013 for the president: he has passed over the historic bridge from celebrated re-election to the status of an irrelevant lame-duck.

Virtually every item in the president’s speech had been heard before and introduced with greater passion and urgency in the past. Everything on his long, dreary laundry list had a tired feel to it, showing the country and the world that his only answer to the nation’s problems is to continue recycling the timeworn and ineffective policies that he’s been peddling for five years.

All his proposals were cribbed from the 2013 State of the Union including calls to address income inequality, raise the minimum wage, invest in solar energy, universal pre-kindergarten, and student loans. But the difference between the two speeches could be measured not simply in terms of the mind-numbing number of tedious repetitions, but in the drab, lethargic affect the president projected as he droned on. Last year he managed to convey the liberal agenda with confidence and urgency. That energy was completely lacking in tonight’s speech. After a year of scandals and a disastrous rollout of his signature health-care plan—whose problems were never once mentioned in the speech—the president seems unable to muster the requisite emotional enthusiasm or the intellectual firepower to challenge or inspire the nation.

As to specifics, the much-trumpeted “year of action” on inequality was merely a rehash of the same proposals that have already been rejected.  The only new idea he presented was an absurd call for all employers to give their employees raises, a shameless populist appeal that makes no economic sense. The man who promised to turn back the oceans and remake America is now reduced to an utterly pathetic plea that America should get a raise. Even the talk of governing by executive orders was delivered more as a talking point than a genuine appeal for change.

On foreign policy, his strongest words were delivered in a threat to veto new economic sanctions on Iran that he thinks will upset his diplomatic outreach to the Islamist regime. His drive for détente with Iran—bolstered by false claims about inspections and Iran destroying its uranium stockpile—seems to fire him up but his chutzpah in proclaiming Syria—where he endured total humiliation in 2013—as a triumph for his policies shows just how shockingly removed from reality this administration has become.

With three years to go, there is still plenty of time for Obama to continue spinning his wheels on a health-care plan that is a fiasco and proposals such as the minimum wage that will only serve to increase unemployment. But tonight made clear that there is nothing new left in his bag of tricks. The sounds you’re hearing now, and will for the next three years, are the querulous quacks of a very lame duck.

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Big Gulp Doesn’t Drown Rubio’s Response

Judging Marco Rubio’s performance in his official Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union depends upon whether you think satire outweighs substance and style. There is little doubt that Rubio’s case of dry mouth will be endlessly mocked in the days, weeks and even years to come. Television comics will ruthlessly parody his hurried grab for a drink in the middle of the speech. But it would be a mistake to think his on camera water break will come to define the speech or his future presidential hopes.

But take the big gulp out of the equation and what you are talking about is easily the best response to a State of the Union speech since the genre was invented. Rubio’s authentic invocation of his immigrant roots combined with an articulate and passionate argument about opportunity struck exactly the right tone for a Republican Party that is in desperate need of a reboot. Rubio’s persona was, as it always is, intensely likeable as well as informed. Though liberals jibed that his talk was merely a repackaging of traditional conservative themes, that shouldn’t be considered an insult. In Rubio, the GOP has a spokesman who can champion the middle class and immigrants while speaking to the core values of conservatism that still resonate with most Americans. Though the skewering he’ll get over his water problem reduces the impact of his showing, he survived a thankless task with his reputation as one of his party’s leading contenders for the 2016 presidential nomination intact.

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Judging Marco Rubio’s performance in his official Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union depends upon whether you think satire outweighs substance and style. There is little doubt that Rubio’s case of dry mouth will be endlessly mocked in the days, weeks and even years to come. Television comics will ruthlessly parody his hurried grab for a drink in the middle of the speech. But it would be a mistake to think his on camera water break will come to define the speech or his future presidential hopes.

But take the big gulp out of the equation and what you are talking about is easily the best response to a State of the Union speech since the genre was invented. Rubio’s authentic invocation of his immigrant roots combined with an articulate and passionate argument about opportunity struck exactly the right tone for a Republican Party that is in desperate need of a reboot. Rubio’s persona was, as it always is, intensely likeable as well as informed. Though liberals jibed that his talk was merely a repackaging of traditional conservative themes, that shouldn’t be considered an insult. In Rubio, the GOP has a spokesman who can champion the middle class and immigrants while speaking to the core values of conservatism that still resonate with most Americans. Though the skewering he’ll get over his water problem reduces the impact of his showing, he survived a thankless task with his reputation as one of his party’s leading contenders for the 2016 presidential nomination intact.

There is something to be said for the thesis that Republicans need more than a good spokesman in order to compete in the future. But in Rubio, the GOP has more than fresh and articulate face. His ability to speak calmly and rationally about why the president’s soak the rich effort is not just a matter of good marketing. To listen to many in the mainstream liberal media, President Obama’s narrow yet clear victory last November means liberalism is ascendant and conservatism is dead. But the notion that Americans are really prepared to double down on another stimulus boondoggle and sink the country further into debt is one that the election results can’t entirely sustain.

That leaves an opening for a conservative who can combine common sense about the government’s spending problem with an optimistic pro-growth message. That is why Rubio’s speech — Gunga Din jokes notwithstanding — gives him a leg up on 2016.

The comparison with the other Republican responder also won’t hurt Rubio.

Rand Paul’s Tea Party response to the State of the Union got even less attention that it might have otherwise gotten because of the cable networks decision to switch to coverage of the hunt for the California gunman. None of the networks covered Paul’s speech live and watching it online via the Tea Party Express website was hit or miss for many viewers.

But the problem with Paul’s speech went further than its minimal exposure. He welcome the sequester cuts that most Americans don’t like. He even advocated deeper cuts in defense spending that libertarians will like but not most Republicans. His libertarian base will cheer this but it’s not clear that is a path to winning mainstream GOP support in 2016.

Rubio will take his lumps about his dry mouth but no one can argue that his speech was not effective. It was not the unadulterated triumph it might have been absent his thirst, but I’d be surprised if we didn’t look back three years from now and see this is a moment when Rubio solidified his rip on a spot in the first tier of GOP presidential candidates.

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Not a Single Dime? Not a Chance.

The most dramatic part of President Obama’s State of the Union speech was his impassioned appeal for more gun control. Shamelessly invoking gun victims, including the children of Newtown, Connecticut, the president demanded that each of his proposals for new restrictions should be given an up or down vote in Congress even though none would do much to end gun violence. That earned him a standing ovation from Democrats even if many moderate members of his party from red states have no intention of ever putting themselves in a position where they might have to vote on such measures.

But while the “deserve a vote” rhetoric about gun control got the most applause the centerpiece of his address was a laundry list of government programs that he wants implemented that amounts to a second stimulus in all but name. For the most part this was just another straight-forward demand for a liberal vision in which government could and must afford to do just about everything from pre-K education to green jobs to easing the way for more home ownership. But by claiming that this staggering wish list wouldn’t “add a single dime to the deficit” he may have created a one-man credibility gap that even his impressive speaking ability and personal charm can’t close. You have to believe in the Tooth Fairy to buy the idea that this much new bureaucracy and involvement in the private sector won’t wind up costing a lot more money that we don’t have.

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The most dramatic part of President Obama’s State of the Union speech was his impassioned appeal for more gun control. Shamelessly invoking gun victims, including the children of Newtown, Connecticut, the president demanded that each of his proposals for new restrictions should be given an up or down vote in Congress even though none would do much to end gun violence. That earned him a standing ovation from Democrats even if many moderate members of his party from red states have no intention of ever putting themselves in a position where they might have to vote on such measures.

But while the “deserve a vote” rhetoric about gun control got the most applause the centerpiece of his address was a laundry list of government programs that he wants implemented that amounts to a second stimulus in all but name. For the most part this was just another straight-forward demand for a liberal vision in which government could and must afford to do just about everything from pre-K education to green jobs to easing the way for more home ownership. But by claiming that this staggering wish list wouldn’t “add a single dime to the deficit” he may have created a one-man credibility gap that even his impressive speaking ability and personal charm can’t close. You have to believe in the Tooth Fairy to buy the idea that this much new bureaucracy and involvement in the private sector won’t wind up costing a lot more money that we don’t have.

Obama’s roster of programs he wants implemented is long. Some of it involves ideas many Republicans will support like immigration reform. But much of it resolves around liberal ideological talking points like climate change which he hopes to solve by spending more on the kind of green jobs that gave the country scandals like the Solyndra boondoggle. He also threatened to take unilateral executive action on global warming if Congress didn’t act which means the Environmental Protection Agency will be given new unaccountable powers to crush economic growth around the country as well as driving up the cost of gas and just about everything else.

Other liberal patent nostrums like a minimum wage increase — a proposal that will kill jobs and hurt the very people the president claims to want to help — were also plugged. But perhaps the most curious item was his demand that the government ease the way for more home ownership. Given that the 2008 fiscal crisis was caused in large measure by government intervention in the market that made it easier for people who couldn’t afford to buy a home to get mortgages, going down that road again shows just how clueless this administration remains.

As for the immediate problem of avoiding the sequestration spending cuts, the president was disingenuous as well as unrealistic. The devastating sequestration cuts was the White House’s idea for resolving the 2011 debt ceiling standoff but the president is now pretending that it is all the fault of the Republicans. But as with everything else, ideology rules when it comes to a deficit plan that merely recycled his old rhetoric. The president considers his proposal balanced but that is a misnomer since he still refuses to contemplate genuine reform of entitlements and continues to pretend that taxing the rich will solve the deficit.

The president gave relatively short shrift to foreign policy even though it is entirely possible that the confrontation with Iran and the aftermath of the pullout from Afghanistan will provide the biggest crises of his second term. It is doubtful that those listening in Tehran were impressed by his calls for more diplomacy to forestall their nuclear threat. On the other hand, the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which he claims to have defeated, were probably cheered by his talk of accelerated pullouts from Afghanistan. The Benghazi debacle that gives the lie to the administration’s claim of victory over Islamist terror never got a mention.

But the bottom line of this speech is a claim that America can have a new raft of big government proposals without further sinking the nation into debt. It may be that whopper which will remembered long after his liberal shopping list is filed in the dustbin of history.

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Will Obama’s Lurch Left Reunite the GOP?

The spin coming out of the White House over the last several days about tomorrow’s State of the Union speech led some people to suppose that there would be a change of tone from the stridently ideological tone that the president sounded in his second inaugural. We were told that the centerpiece of the speech would be about jobs, a topic that President Obama all but ignored on January 21. There was some expectation that he would accompany it with an olive branch to Republicans rather than the “I won the election, deal with it” tone of the inaugural. But sources close to the president are saying that any idea that we’ll be hearing a kindler and gentler Barack Obama addressing Congress is pure fantasy. As Politico reports:

Emboldened by electoral victory and convinced the GOP is unwilling to cut deals, Obama plans to use his big prime-time address Tuesday night to issue another broad challenge at a Republican Party he regards as vulnerable and divided, Democrats close to Obama say.

The president’s goal is to use his current advantageous position to force the Republicans to accept more tax hikes and minimal spending decreases in any deal to head off the disastrous mandatory cuts that will be implemented as part of the looming mandatory sequester cuts. In other words, rather than trying to work with Congress, the president will be doubling down on his provocative inaugural lurch to the left. This strategy is based on a realistic evaluation of his current relative strength vis-à-vis the Republicans. But if he thinks he can repeat his fiscal cliff victory over Congressional Republicans he’s dreaming. He may think this is the path to a successful second term during which he will no longer be at the mercy of his opponents. But by choosing to fight rather than to deal, Obama may be setting in motion a chain of events that could derail the economy and his presidency.

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The spin coming out of the White House over the last several days about tomorrow’s State of the Union speech led some people to suppose that there would be a change of tone from the stridently ideological tone that the president sounded in his second inaugural. We were told that the centerpiece of the speech would be about jobs, a topic that President Obama all but ignored on January 21. There was some expectation that he would accompany it with an olive branch to Republicans rather than the “I won the election, deal with it” tone of the inaugural. But sources close to the president are saying that any idea that we’ll be hearing a kindler and gentler Barack Obama addressing Congress is pure fantasy. As Politico reports:

Emboldened by electoral victory and convinced the GOP is unwilling to cut deals, Obama plans to use his big prime-time address Tuesday night to issue another broad challenge at a Republican Party he regards as vulnerable and divided, Democrats close to Obama say.

The president’s goal is to use his current advantageous position to force the Republicans to accept more tax hikes and minimal spending decreases in any deal to head off the disastrous mandatory cuts that will be implemented as part of the looming mandatory sequester cuts. In other words, rather than trying to work with Congress, the president will be doubling down on his provocative inaugural lurch to the left. This strategy is based on a realistic evaluation of his current relative strength vis-à-vis the Republicans. But if he thinks he can repeat his fiscal cliff victory over Congressional Republicans he’s dreaming. He may think this is the path to a successful second term during which he will no longer be at the mercy of his opponents. But by choosing to fight rather than to deal, Obama may be setting in motion a chain of events that could derail the economy and his presidency.

The president’s confrontational strategy is based on two factors that were very much in evidence six weeks as the fiscal cliff was barely averted by a deal most Republicans hated. One is that the majority of the House GOP caucus fears being blamed for any standoff with the president that will harm the economy. The other is that the Republicans are so divided between mainstream members of Congress led by House Speaker John Boehner and Tea Party insurgents that there is no way for them to work together to thwart the president’s initiatives.

But what Obama fails to realize is that a presidential attempt to shove a liberal agenda down the throat of Congress is the one thing that can reunite the GOP. Moreover, having already given in on tax increases to avoid the fiscal cliff, the pressure he thinks he can exert on Congress to raise taxes again is not as great as he thinks it is. With some Republicans already foolishly welcoming the sequester, Obama may have created a set of circumstances in which Boehner will have no choice but to do something that he’d rather avoid and call the president’s bluff.

Barack Obama would not be the first president to misinterpret a relatively narrow if clear re-election victory as a mandate to transform American politics. But its doubtful that any of his predecessors have demonstrated more overconfidence than he is showing by assuming that a 51 percent vote means that a body of Congress led by his opposition must knuckle under to his dictates without a fight.

Republicans have decided that any effort to force the president to deal with the looming budget crisis by forcing his hand via the debt ceiling is a mistake. But the notion that they will abandon the entitlement reform that is the only path to fiscal sanity while also buying into his call for more “investments” that will sink the country further into debt is pure science fiction.

Throughout his presidency, Obama has always appeared to seek confrontation rather than agreement on the premise that doing so will only enhance his popularity. So far it has worked, but the tilt to the left may be based on an overestimation of the strength of his position. Contrary to what his aides seem to think, at this stage, he has every bit as much to lose from a standoff that will harm the economy. No matter how much he demagogues the GOP about taxing the rich and disingenuous arguments about helping the middle class, the voters will not reward him with victory in the 2014 midterm elections if the economy tanks in the next year.

In his inaugural address, the president demonstrated that he had learned nothing from his first four years in office about working with Republicans to help the country. Instead of further exploiting his opponent’s weakness, he may be on the verge of bringing together a badly divided Republican Party. By doubling down on this partisan tack in his SOTU speech, he may do himself far more damage than the GOP could ever think of doing to him.

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Read it and Weep

I had some critical things to say about President Obama’s State of the Union address. But the evening was not a total waste, thanks to the response by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels.

Looking at it simply from the craftsmanship of speechwriting, it’s quite impressive. Several things stand out about it, starting with its tone at the opening, which showed genuine good will toward the president. Grace notes like these are not in oversupply these days. There’s also an economy of words in Daniels’s address, which helps create a sense of movement. One paragraph builds on another.

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I had some critical things to say about President Obama’s State of the Union address. But the evening was not a total waste, thanks to the response by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels.

Looking at it simply from the craftsmanship of speechwriting, it’s quite impressive. Several things stand out about it, starting with its tone at the opening, which showed genuine good will toward the president. Grace notes like these are not in oversupply these days. There’s also an economy of words in Daniels’s address, which helps create a sense of movement. One paragraph builds on another.

But beyond the rhetoric is the analysis, which is both sophisticated and honest. Governor Daniels resists the temptation to overstate the blame that rests with the president, even while offering a substantive, and at times a withering, critique of Obama’s failures. And Daniels offered something the president’s State of the Union address didn’t, which is an actual theory of government. And Daniels did all this in a fraction of the time and words used by Obama.

Mitch Daniels turns out to be not only the best governor in America, but also perhaps the best writer among America’s major political figures. George Will, in describing Daniels, refers to his “low-key charisma of competence.” True enough, but there’s also an understated elegance to Daniels’s words.

Needless to say, those of us who wanted Daniels to run for president this year were reminded why. In that sense, listening to Daniels’s speech left some of us more depressed than listening to Obama’s speech.

 

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Why Do They Want to Be President?

There’s an episode of the hit TV show “The West Wing” in which the president’s likely re-election opponent is asked why he wants to be president and flubs the question. The president’s advisers enjoy a good laugh at their opponent’s mistake–until they realize their boss also doesn’t know why he wants to be president.

As life imitates art, we seem to be watching a real-life episode of this farce play out. President Obama’s State of the Union address was widely panned even by his own supporters (“immediately forgettable” wrote Dan Amira). As a campaign speech–which it was–the address was delivered by a man who has no idea why he wants to be president again. He wouldn’t mention, let alone defend, his signature pieces of legislation–health care reform and the stimulus, both of which are deeply unpopular–yet said the economy is slowly getting better. The implication was that he hadn’t really done anything, but jobs were somehow coming back anyway so he should be re-elected because if the American economy is strong enough to withstand a first term of his, it can probably withstand another one.

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There’s an episode of the hit TV show “The West Wing” in which the president’s likely re-election opponent is asked why he wants to be president and flubs the question. The president’s advisers enjoy a good laugh at their opponent’s mistake–until they realize their boss also doesn’t know why he wants to be president.

As life imitates art, we seem to be watching a real-life episode of this farce play out. President Obama’s State of the Union address was widely panned even by his own supporters (“immediately forgettable” wrote Dan Amira). As a campaign speech–which it was–the address was delivered by a man who has no idea why he wants to be president again. He wouldn’t mention, let alone defend, his signature pieces of legislation–health care reform and the stimulus, both of which are deeply unpopular–yet said the economy is slowly getting better. The implication was that he hadn’t really done anything, but jobs were somehow coming back anyway so he should be re-elected because if the American economy is strong enough to withstand a first term of his, it can probably withstand another one.

His would-be Republican replacements don’t fare much better. Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that “If elected president, Mitt Romney might consider ending a tax break that helped the former Massachusetts governor accumulate his fortune, an aide suggested Tuesday.” Well that’s a good election platform for a Republican: identify a legal, ethical, popular investment strategy that enables people to accumulate wealth, and then outlaw it. Romney is doing this because he is rich.

Actually, he’s doing this because he’s embarrassed by his own riches. The release of his tax returns would provide Romney the perfect opportunity to make the case for real tax reform. He isn’t. His financial history enables him to make the case private equity firms have had an overall (net? Net-net?) effect on the American economy that is by any honest rendering superb. He isn’t making that case either. Instead, he’s atoning for his sins, though he has committed none.

But don’t tell that to his rival, Newt Gingrich. Gingrich was asked yesterday about Romney’s enforcement-first approach to immigration. Gingrich’s position on the issue is, economically speaking, probably the better plan (even if the “draft board” idea is unworkable). Gingrich can make the case his approach to immigration is more humane, more respectful, more realistic, more feasible, and more economically beneficial to the country than Romney’s. So which nuanced, wonky riposte did Gingrich choose? None of the above.

As Alana noted yesterday, this was Gingrich’s response: “You have to live in a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and making $20 million for no work, to have some fantasy this far from reality.” Is he saying business leaders prefer mass deportations of illegal immigrants? Because they don’t. (That’s the point of cracking down on those who hire illegal immigrants as an enforcement mechanism.) Is he saying wealthier Americans prefer harsher enforcement measures? Because the evidence suggests that isn’t the case either.

What he is saying is that a man of Romney’s wealth and privilege is less qualified to be president regardless of the issues because he would be unable to understand the lives of “normal” Americans. So are there any Republicans willing to not only refuse to echo such pronouncements but offer a sensible yet bold contrast to it? Sure, Mitch Daniels is happy to do it. He did so in his response to the State of the Union. How’s he doing in the primaries? Right, he’s not running. He thinks the debt crisis is absolutely catastrophic for this country, but he’s pretty sure someone will take care of it. And if not, well, don’t say he didn’t warn you.

This is not to suggest there are no differences between Romney and Obama or between Gingrich and Obama. But there is a puzzling incoherence. I like the spirit behind Gingrich’s resuscitation of the space program. But it’s unrealistic to suggest a permanent American moon colony won’t cost the federal government a fortune.

Gingrich criticizes the president for spending too much while trying to do too much and then proposes radical changes that would cost billions, probably trillions. And as for Romney, in one sentence he criticizes the president for demonizing success and then sheepishly suggests maybe he shouldn’t have been able to make or vastly increase his personal fortune.

They all want to be president. But they all need to make a better case for why they want to be president.

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The Truth About Buffett and Taxes

For show-and-tell at the State of the Union Address on Tuesday night, President Obama had Warren Buffett’s secretary sitting next to the First Lady. Debbie Bosenek has become the poster child for the allegation that “the rich” don’t pay their fair share of federal taxes.

But Buffett’s secretary is not exactly poverty stricken. On “Fox and Friends” this morning, it was reported that she earns $200,000 a year. CEO’s secretaries, on average, earn $67,000, according to Michael Patrick Leahy. She has also apparently bought a second house, in Arizona.

According to Buffett’s article in the New York Times last August, he pays far less in taxes than the working stiffs in his office:

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For show-and-tell at the State of the Union Address on Tuesday night, President Obama had Warren Buffett’s secretary sitting next to the First Lady. Debbie Bosenek has become the poster child for the allegation that “the rich” don’t pay their fair share of federal taxes.

But Buffett’s secretary is not exactly poverty stricken. On “Fox and Friends” this morning, it was reported that she earns $200,000 a year. CEO’s secretaries, on average, earn $67,000, according to Michael Patrick Leahy. She has also apparently bought a second house, in Arizona.

According to Buffett’s article in the New York Times last August, he pays far less in taxes than the working stiffs in his office:

Last year my federal tax bill — the income tax I paid, as well as payroll taxes paid by me and on my behalf — was $6,938,744. That sounds like a lot of money. But what I paid was only 17.4 percent of my taxable income — and that’s actually a lower percentage than was paid by any of the other 20 people in our office. Their tax burdens ranged from 33 percent to 41 percent and averaged 36 percent.

If Warren Buffett submitted a filing at the SEC this dishonest, he’d be in big trouble. But, since this fits the party line, the president took it as gospel, and the mainstream media has carefully refrained from asking any inconvenient questions. (h/t Powerline).

By conflating payroll (FICA) taxes and income taxes, Buffett is playing the intellectual equivalent of three-card monte. FICA taxes are collected only on wages, to a limited amount, in order to provide a limited income in retirement. Technically, they are not taxes at all, but “contributions,” (although I wouldn’t recommend deciding not to contribute). The fact that the federal government commingles these contributions with general revenues in order to make the federal deficit look better is a disgrace. Since Buffett’s income comes overwhelmingly from investment income and he is one of the richest people in the world, of course the people working for him in his office pay a higher percentage of their incomes in FICA taxes.

And, as I have discussed earlier, he ignores the fact that his investment income, from dividends and capital gains, has already been taxed–at 35 percent–at the corporate level. So the personal taxes he pays on it are double taxation. His actual effective tax rate is closer to 44 percent than 15 percent. He’s paying far more in taxes, as a percentage of income, than his secretary.

People sometimes have trouble grasping that corporate profits are the profits of the stockholders, especially as the corporate income tax has been in place for 100 years now. So let me see if I can make clear what is involved here.

Say a man owns a house he rents out. His income from the property, after expenses, is $25,000. He’s in the 30 percent bracket, so he pays $7,500 in taxes on the income and the $17,500 remaining is his.

Now, in an effort to make the rich pay their fair share (and, of course, anyone who owns rental property is rich, at least in liberal newspeak), the federal government decides to require that all rental properties must file their own tax returns and pay a 35 percent tax on income after expenses. That means that the house itself now pays an income tax of $8750. It then sends the rest, $16,250 on to the owner. But he’s in the 30 percent bracket himself, so he has to pay 30 percent on what he gets after the house has paid its taxes, $4875. So now he’s left with $11,375 to spend or save, not $17,500. Thus, the owner is now paying a tax of 45.5 percent on his rental income, not 30 percent.

For someone as good as Warren Buffett at numbers and financial analysis to call 45.5 percent 30 percent is to tell a bald-face lie. For President Obama and the mainstream media to call it truth is, well, typical.

 

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Obama’s Fictional Narrative

I have some sympathy for President Obama’s speechwriters. A State of the Union address is inherently challenging to write because there’s a laundry list quality to them. (That was not the case for President Bush’s early State of the Union speeches, as we were able to focus on the war on terror, which created a clear hierarchy of priorities, allowing us to reject the usual input from various federal agencies). But what made Obama’s address last night doubly challenging is he clearly understands he cannot defend his record and won’t even try. That was obvious, given the glaring omissions in his speech. For example, Obamacare barely made a cameo appearance last night while his stimulus package was kept off-stage completely.

Then there is the fact that the president has no compelling second-term agenda to offer (something I wrote about yesterday). And since a State of the Union address imposes some constraints on Obama’s favorite rhetorical device these days, which is to accuse Republicans of being unpatriotic and very nearly sadistic, what’s a presidential speechwriter to do?

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I have some sympathy for President Obama’s speechwriters. A State of the Union address is inherently challenging to write because there’s a laundry list quality to them. (That was not the case for President Bush’s early State of the Union speeches, as we were able to focus on the war on terror, which created a clear hierarchy of priorities, allowing us to reject the usual input from various federal agencies). But what made Obama’s address last night doubly challenging is he clearly understands he cannot defend his record and won’t even try. That was obvious, given the glaring omissions in his speech. For example, Obamacare barely made a cameo appearance last night while his stimulus package was kept off-stage completely.

Then there is the fact that the president has no compelling second-term agenda to offer (something I wrote about yesterday). And since a State of the Union address imposes some constraints on Obama’s favorite rhetorical device these days, which is to accuse Republicans of being unpatriotic and very nearly sadistic, what’s a presidential speechwriter to do?

One option is to have Obama say in 2012 almost exactly what he said in 2010 and 2011. The problem with that is it’s not only rhetorically uncreative, it’s downright embarrassing. (See here:) Another is to try to recapture the glory days of 2008 by attacking “cynicism” and declaring “Washington is broken.” The problem here is the president himself has done an extraordinary amount to deepen cynicism and add to the disrepair of Washington. A third option would be to parrot Bill Clinton’s approach, right down to advocating “small ball” proposals and using Clintonian phrases like siding with Americans who “work hard and play by the rules.” But we can all agree there’s something a bit pathetic in seeing a president who views himself as a world-historical figure giving more attention to his proposed Trade Enforcement Unit than to his signature domestic achievement.

In any event, last night the president embroidered all three approaches into his speech, along with the usual touch of class warfare rhetoric and a few dollops of misleading claims. (To take but one example: Obama again said billionaire Warren Buffett “pays a lower tax rate than his secretary,” even though this assertion is at best wildly incomplete. What the president won’t tell you is that (a) corporations pay up to a 35 percent tax on their profits before shareholders receive a plug nickel and (b) the real tax rate on corporate income paid to individuals through capital gains and dividends is roughly 45 percent once you count the tax on corporate profits.)

The result of all this was yet one more mediocre address by a president who was, his supporters assured us only a few years ago, the greatest American orator since Lincoln. Obama’s State of the Union address was a political document, not a governing one, and the goal of this speech was transparently political: use poll-driven language and poll-driven proposals to appeal to white working-class Americans, a demographic which Obama is doing terribly with right now.

But what was perhaps most striking is the State of the Union address last night had almost nothing useful to say about how to create economic growth. Beyond that, there was no correspondence between the speech and the objective needs of the nation. The greatest domestic threat we face is our exploding debt. The main driver of it is entitlement programs, most especially Medicare. Which means the structural reform and modernization of Medicare should be a top priority for America. Yet the president not only isn’t addressing that problem; he’s done a tremendous amount during the last three years to worsen it. And now, with nine months to go before re-election, he’s attempting to distract the polity by offering up a counter-narrative that goes like this: The main problem in America today is income inequality, not the unprecedented projected trajectory of our debt. (Whatever one makes of income inequality, and there are problematic elements to it, it does not belong in the same galaxy of concerns as our exploding debt.)

Obama is doing everything in his power to promote this fiction. It is the duty of the loyal opposition and every honest public intellectual to call the president out on this.

 

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Obama Cites Military’s Many Virtues, But It’s Not a Model for Society

That was a very curious State of the Union address President Obama delivered, at least as it relates to our armed forces. Instead of beginning, as one would expect, with domestic issues, he began with a tribute to the armed forces and used that to segue to his domestic agenda. His words of praise for the armed forces were obviously heartfelt and eloquent: He cited “the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America’s armed forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.” To which, one can only say: Amen.

But then his remarks took a curious turn. He said: “Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example. Think about the America within our reach: A country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs.  A future where we’re in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren’t so tied to unstable parts of the world. An economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded.” In other words, the civilian population should emulate the military. There is something seductive in this appeal, which is why even many on the right (perhaps especially on the right) favor some form of “national service” requirement. And there is virtually universal nostalgia for the days of the Greatest Generation which won World War II and returned to build postwar America. Obama himself tapped into this nostalgic vein when he said: “We can do this. I know we can, because we’ve done it before. At the end of World War II, when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known. My grandfather, a veteran of Patton’s Army, got the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. My grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line, was part of a workforce that turned out the best products on Earth.”

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That was a very curious State of the Union address President Obama delivered, at least as it relates to our armed forces. Instead of beginning, as one would expect, with domestic issues, he began with a tribute to the armed forces and used that to segue to his domestic agenda. His words of praise for the armed forces were obviously heartfelt and eloquent: He cited “the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America’s armed forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.” To which, one can only say: Amen.

But then his remarks took a curious turn. He said: “Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example. Think about the America within our reach: A country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs.  A future where we’re in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren’t so tied to unstable parts of the world. An economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded.” In other words, the civilian population should emulate the military. There is something seductive in this appeal, which is why even many on the right (perhaps especially on the right) favor some form of “national service” requirement. And there is virtually universal nostalgia for the days of the Greatest Generation which won World War II and returned to build postwar America. Obama himself tapped into this nostalgic vein when he said: “We can do this. I know we can, because we’ve done it before. At the end of World War II, when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known. My grandfather, a veteran of Patton’s Army, got the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. My grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line, was part of a workforce that turned out the best products on Earth.”

But nostalgia should not mask the fact that the “Mad Men” world is not one most of us would like to live in today. It was, after all, a world where big institutions–whether big government, big media, big business or big unions–had far more power than they do today. The downside of this arrangement was captured in numerous contemporary critiques such as “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” and “The Organization Man” and “The Lonely Crowd” that were a touchstone for Baby Boomers rebelling against the conformism of the 1950s.

From our standpoint today, there are some good aspects of the 1950s–the hard work, the sense of common purpose–but also much that we would reject, especially the pervasive racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, and other social attitudes–not to mention the pervasive drinking, smoking, and other bad habits. America today is far more individualistic and far more meritocratic with far less tolerance for rank prejudice and far less willingness to blindly follow the orders of rigid bureaucracies.

On the whole this is a positive development–it is what has made possible the dynamism of an information age economy symbolized by Apple’s staggering earnings. We would all be poorer–literally–if we went back to more of a top-down command economy, which is what Obama seems to be pining for. Indeed per capita income in 1950 was $1,500 (which, adjusted for inflation, works out to around $10,000 today) compared with almost $40,000 today.

Make no mistake: the military works well. But that’s because it’s comprised of volunteers with a mission–defending America. Members of the armed forces are willing to accept privations and hardships, and respond unquestioningly to orders, in a way that civilians will not and should not. Let’s temper our admiration of the military: For all its virtues, it is not a model for the rest of society.

 

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What to Expect from Obama on Iran

President Obama gives his third State of the Union Address on Tuesday, and he will have to speak about Iran as it heads toward an obvious goal. The “tough” and “tight” sanctions he touted in last year’s SOTU Address did not cripple the regime, stop its nuclear weapons program, or produce any talks. Three years of attempted engagement have been a failure.

At the White House press conference Wednesday, spokesman Jay Carney was asked whether Obama sent a private letter to the Iranian Supreme Leader proposing direct U.S.-Iranian talks, as two Iranian officials allege. Carney responded that “any communications … with the Iranians are the same in private as they have been in public;” that the only channel is the P5+1 offer to negotiate; and that Iran has “shown no inclination thus far to make that choice”:

“And what we have seen over the three years since this president has been in office is he has — by pursuing the Iranian issue in the way that he has, he has ensured that a world that was in conflict over this issue is now united … He has brought to bear a level of consensus in the international community on the need to pressure Iran and isolate Iran on this issue that did not exist prior to him taking office.”

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President Obama gives his third State of the Union Address on Tuesday, and he will have to speak about Iran as it heads toward an obvious goal. The “tough” and “tight” sanctions he touted in last year’s SOTU Address did not cripple the regime, stop its nuclear weapons program, or produce any talks. Three years of attempted engagement have been a failure.

At the White House press conference Wednesday, spokesman Jay Carney was asked whether Obama sent a private letter to the Iranian Supreme Leader proposing direct U.S.-Iranian talks, as two Iranian officials allege. Carney responded that “any communications … with the Iranians are the same in private as they have been in public;” that the only channel is the P5+1 offer to negotiate; and that Iran has “shown no inclination thus far to make that choice”:

“And what we have seen over the three years since this president has been in office is he has — by pursuing the Iranian issue in the way that he has, he has ensured that a world that was in conflict over this issue is now united … He has brought to bear a level of consensus in the international community on the need to pressure Iran and isolate Iran on this issue that did not exist prior to him taking office.”

Three years of effort and the only results are: a consensus to pressure and isolate Iran that supposedly “did not exist prior to him taking office.”

Except that it did exist. Here is an excerpt from the July 9, 2008 testimony of Under Secretary of State William J. Burns before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, entitled “The Strategic Challenge Posed by Iran,” which summarizes the strategy and consensus at that time:

This Committee is intimately familiar with the dual-track strategy that we have employed in concert with our P5+1 partners – the UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China – to put before the Iranian leadership a clear choice …

President Bush emphasized last month at the US-EU Summit that we seek to address this issue through a multilateral framework. He said: “Unilateral sanctions don’t work…One country can’t solve all problems…A group of countries can send a clear message to the Iranians, and that is: ‘We are going to continue to isolate you. We’ll continue to work on sanctions. We’ll find new sanctions if need be if you continue to deny the just demands of a free world.’” …

The international community is more unified than in the past on the necessity for Iran to fully and verifiably suspend its proliferation sensitive nuclear activities and reestablish international confidence in the peaceful nature of its nuclear program. There is also a mounting consensus for Iran to come clean on its past efforts to build a nuclear warhead …

We have committed repeatedly and at the highest levels to deal diplomatically with the Iranian regime. The fact that this diplomatic dialogue has been limited to less than satisfying talks in Baghdad is the unfortunate choice of the Iranian leadership.

Obama has not forged a consensus that did not previously exist; he has continued a policy that had failed even before he took office. Under his watch, centrifuges have continued to whirl; deadlines have been ignored; sanctions have not achieved their purpose; no significant talks have occurred; and he has delayed further sanctions for six months or more, while signaling he is more concerned about Israel than Iran.

Leslie Gelb writes that the administration will not commit to “any particular action beyond ratcheting up rhetorical pressures and economic sanctions” and will try only to “say enough to keep Israel from pulling its own unilateral trigger.” If Carney’s remarks are any indication, Obama plans to congratulate himself on Tuesday for a consensus that pre-dated him, avoid any commitment beyond what has repeatedly failed in Cuba, Iraq, and North Korea, and hope this will take him beyond November.

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