Commentary Magazine


Topic: state of the union

The Court Jesters

Easily the strangest moment in last night’s State of the Union address was when President Obama promised to ignore Congress and carry out his agenda without their legislative oversight or cooperation and was met with a hearty ovation from congressional Democrats. One possible explanation was that they weren’t listening, and responded to a vocal cue. Another is that they simply assumed it was their obligation to shower their king with praise.

But there’s actually a third explanation, which may be giving them too much credit but is also at least logical. Politico carries an interesting story today on the tension between congressional Democrats and Obama over the disastrous rollout of ObamaCare and its possible impact on the fall midterm elections. In the president’s address, he tried to ward off Republican attempts to undo the unpopular law by holding vote after vote to repeal it. Enough of those symbolic votes, Obama said: “The first forty were plenty. We got it.”

But it turns out that, as the Politico story shows, the president’s real problem on ObamaCare is not Republican opposition–which he can dismiss as partisan posturing–but the congressional Democrats:

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Easily the strangest moment in last night’s State of the Union address was when President Obama promised to ignore Congress and carry out his agenda without their legislative oversight or cooperation and was met with a hearty ovation from congressional Democrats. One possible explanation was that they weren’t listening, and responded to a vocal cue. Another is that they simply assumed it was their obligation to shower their king with praise.

But there’s actually a third explanation, which may be giving them too much credit but is also at least logical. Politico carries an interesting story today on the tension between congressional Democrats and Obama over the disastrous rollout of ObamaCare and its possible impact on the fall midterm elections. In the president’s address, he tried to ward off Republican attempts to undo the unpopular law by holding vote after vote to repeal it. Enough of those symbolic votes, Obama said: “The first forty were plenty. We got it.”

But it turns out that, as the Politico story shows, the president’s real problem on ObamaCare is not Republican opposition–which he can dismiss as partisan posturing–but the congressional Democrats:

With the Democratic grip on the Senate coming down to at least six seats, the White House is extremely sensitive to the concerns of in-cycle Democrats. The administration hopes to use the president’s authority to assuage voter anger over the law, as it did recently by exempting volunteer fire departments from health coverage mandates.

In addition to Landrieu, who faces a tough reelection this year, the effort is also being organized by Heidi Heitkamp, who won a bruising battle in North Dakota last cycle. And the discussions include a spate of Democrats facing potentially difficult races this year, including Begich, Pryor, Mark Udall of Colorado, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Warner of Virginia and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

While the private discussions consist of several senators who are not running for reelection — namely freshmen Democrats like Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Tim Kaine of Virginia, and the independent Angus King of Maine — at least nine senators facing voters in the fall are discussing whether to push legislation or pressure the White House to make administrative fixes they can then flag to voters back home.

The issue is this: the president doesn’t really want to talk about ObamaCare, because until coverage expands the White House will continue to lose the battle of the anecdotes. The law, thus far, is creating more “losers” than “winners.” The expansion of coverage under the law may not fix that because of Medicaid’s manifold weaknesses. Additionally, unless the employer mandate is repealed, its suspension will come to an end and inflict plenty of pain on the economy. And people will continue losing the plans they like.

However, the president has the bully pulpit and everyone who needs insurance and gets it under ObamaCare can have their story trumpeted by the traveling salesman in chief. The government will also claim, on behalf of ObamaCare, more credit for expanding coverage than it warrants while keeping the real numbers hidden for as long as possible, the way central planners always must in order to hide their incompetence.

The point is, the White House wants time to catch up. But Democrats up for reelection in November don’t have that time. They want to talk about ObamaCare–specifically, they want to talk about fixing it. Obama doesn’t, because that would admit its faults and failures.

Going through Congress is also a political minefield for the president, because Republicans still control the House and have enough seats in the Senate to make Democratic votes count. The president may be willing to make certain fixes to the law, but he doesn’t want to lose control of it.

Democrats have reason to be wary as well. The reason Harry Reid has been chipping away at minority rights and ignoring Senate rules and traditions is so Democrats can be spared from taking difficult votes. Tossing ObamaCare back into the Senate would mean some of these Democrats may get the votes they want–but they may also be forced to take votes they don’t, and the last thing they want is to have yet another vote in support of ObamaCare heading into the midterms. (That’s why they’re in this predicament in the first place.)

But there is a solution: The president can ignore the law and Congress and adjust the legislation accordingly, no votes necessary. Congressional Democrats are comfortable with this because they don’t want something as trifling as the law of the land or the Constitution to get in the way of their reelection and continued empowerment. The president is comfortable with this because he considers Congress’s main responsibility to be to stand and clap for him when he insults them to their faces. Which is what they, and he, did at last night’s address.

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Forget “War Footing”; Can We Handle Peacetime?

It hasn’t gotten much notice, but President Obama’s State of the Union included the following pledge: “Here at home, we’ll keep strengthening our defenses and combat new threats like cyberattacks. And as we reform our defense budget, we have to keep faith with our men and women in uniform and invest in the capabilities they need to succeed in future missions.”

What the speech didn’t include was any mention of the defense budget, which makes the above pledge ring hollow. On the president’s watch Congress, with his approval, has implemented defense budget cuts that will eliminate roughly a trillion dollars in planned spending on the armed forces over the next decade. The recently passed budget deal negotiated by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray puts back a small amount of defense funding in the next two years–roughly $40 billion. But that’s a drop in the bucket of the overall deluge in budget cuts, which threaten to drown our military readiness.

A couple of news items this morning show what such cuts mean in practice.

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It hasn’t gotten much notice, but President Obama’s State of the Union included the following pledge: “Here at home, we’ll keep strengthening our defenses and combat new threats like cyberattacks. And as we reform our defense budget, we have to keep faith with our men and women in uniform and invest in the capabilities they need to succeed in future missions.”

What the speech didn’t include was any mention of the defense budget, which makes the above pledge ring hollow. On the president’s watch Congress, with his approval, has implemented defense budget cuts that will eliminate roughly a trillion dollars in planned spending on the armed forces over the next decade. The recently passed budget deal negotiated by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray puts back a small amount of defense funding in the next two years–roughly $40 billion. But that’s a drop in the bucket of the overall deluge in budget cuts, which threaten to drown our military readiness.

A couple of news items this morning show what such cuts mean in practice.

Item #1: The Breaking Defense website reports that the Navy is down to 10 carriers even thought there is currently a demand for 15 carriers. The Navy has been trying to make up the gap by deploying carriers longer than ever at sea. “But,” the article notes, “the price was high: extra-long deployments, stressed-out crews, and overworked ships requiring extensive and expensive unplanned maintenance. Now the Navy has decided it just cannot get as much work out of the carriers it has — just as the budget cuts known as sequestration may leave it with fewer carriers.” That’s right, the Navy may never get back to its planned end-strength of 11 carriers, much less the 15 it really needs–and it may not even be able to afford 10.

Item #2: Military Times reports the Army “will likely flirt with being reduced to around 400,000 soldiers for the first time since before World War II.”

Similar cuts are being undertaken by the Air Force and Marine Corps.

In short, our military capacity is being greatly reduced–and the situation is even worse than it should be because, as Mackenzie Eaglen notes, Congress is frustrating Pentagon efforts to close more bases and cut back on the generous benefits being paid to veterans. Ballooning personnel costs, especially in health care, mean that even more must be cut from the funds needed for procurement, training, operations, and maintenance–and that translates into a looming, or perhaps already existent, readiness crisis.

Yet President Obama did not even mention this issue in the State of the Union. Instead he declared that “America must move off a permanent war footing.” That conjured up images of the U.S. demobilizing after the massive buildup of World War II when defense spending was over 37 percent of GDP and over 89 percent of the federal budget. Today the figures are, respectively, under 4 percent and under 20 percent–and falling fast. We are not, by any stretch, on a “war footing” today. Soon, if the current trajectory continues, we will not even be able to respond to the demands of peacetime military deployments, much less to fight a future war.

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Obama’s Burned-Out Presidency

President Obama’s State of the Union address was a strong argument for term limits. What we witnessed last night was Mr. Obama at his most long-winded and intellectually exhausted, acting as if verbosity can make up for an empty agenda.

The president dusted off old promises and commitments (like closing Guantanamo Bay, which he mentioned in his 2009 address and still remains open) and put forward half-baked suggestions masquerading as new policies. There was nothing creative or interesting in what we heard. The speech will be forgotten almost instantaneously. 

To be sure, the president’s speech included his compulsive tendency to lecture and mock Republicans, but by Obama’s standards they were kept pretty well in check. What was most striking about last night’s speech was Mr. Obama’s impotence.

The man who promised to remake the world and halt the rise of the oceans–“We are the moment we’ve been waiting for!”–has been reduced to arguing for patent reform and asking Vice President Biden to lead an across-the-board reform of America’s training programs.

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President Obama’s State of the Union address was a strong argument for term limits. What we witnessed last night was Mr. Obama at his most long-winded and intellectually exhausted, acting as if verbosity can make up for an empty agenda.

The president dusted off old promises and commitments (like closing Guantanamo Bay, which he mentioned in his 2009 address and still remains open) and put forward half-baked suggestions masquerading as new policies. There was nothing creative or interesting in what we heard. The speech will be forgotten almost instantaneously. 

To be sure, the president’s speech included his compulsive tendency to lecture and mock Republicans, but by Obama’s standards they were kept pretty well in check. What was most striking about last night’s speech was Mr. Obama’s impotence.

The man who promised to remake the world and halt the rise of the oceans–“We are the moment we’ve been waiting for!”–has been reduced to arguing for patent reform and asking Vice President Biden to lead an across-the-board reform of America’s training programs.

In last year’s speech, the president made gun control a centerpiece of his agenda. Having failed, and having failed in large part because he was undercut by his own party, this year Mr. Obama devoted only two boilerplate sentences to gun restrictions. He’s pushing universal pre-K programs whose benefits are miniscule and transitory. Even the president’s defense of the Affordable Care Act was stale and unoriginal, not to mention at points ludicrous. (For Mr. Obama of all people to argue that Republican health-care plans aren’t credible because the numbers don’t add up ought to elicit a belly laugh from his audience.)

At other points, Mr. Obama’s analysis of the problems facing America–wage stagnation, rising inequality, stalled mobility, too many Americans working more than ever just to get by, with too many others still not working at all–amounts to self-incrimination.

What we saw last night was a burned-out presidency. Mr. Obama was like an aging rock star trying to recapture lost glory. Beginning his sixth year in office, with two years left, President Obama–the avatar of liberalism, the man who presented himself as the embodiment of Hope and Change–has, in the words of Robert Frost, “nothing to look backward to with pride, And nothing to look forward to with hope.”

The Obama presidency is contracting by the day.

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Obama Still Needs Congress

“Sure, economists disagree among themselves about a number of public policy issues, but not about the desirability of free trade,” Cato’s Daniel Griswold wrote in 2009. Griswold was remarking on a survey of economists that gave further credence to the existence of a solid consensus on the benefits of free trade. That consensus, along with basic principles of economic liberty, has buttressed conservative and libertarian support to the point where the right is broadly pro-trade.

The left isn’t, in part because unions support protectionist trade barriers and liberals can’t resist the chance to tax something. That puts President Obama in a bind: he’s somewhere between congressional Democrats and Republicans on trade, so he wants a new trade deal but doesn’t want it subjected to Republican amendments or a Democratic veto. What he wants, then, is Trade Promotion Authority, also known as fast-track powers to strike a trade deal that would be ratified by Congress but not subject to amendment.

In this, he is obviously dependent on Republicans, since they are more likely to want a trade deal with either our European or Pacific allies. But supporting the president’s trade authority isn’t the same thing as supporting free trade. Normally, Obama would appear to have the upper hand: the more serious the reservations Democrats have about his trade plans, the more beneficial Republicans might see such a trade deal. In that, divided government and the two parties’ gap in support for trade would seem to work in Obama’s favor. But what if Democrats and Republicans both have the same concerns?

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“Sure, economists disagree among themselves about a number of public policy issues, but not about the desirability of free trade,” Cato’s Daniel Griswold wrote in 2009. Griswold was remarking on a survey of economists that gave further credence to the existence of a solid consensus on the benefits of free trade. That consensus, along with basic principles of economic liberty, has buttressed conservative and libertarian support to the point where the right is broadly pro-trade.

The left isn’t, in part because unions support protectionist trade barriers and liberals can’t resist the chance to tax something. That puts President Obama in a bind: he’s somewhere between congressional Democrats and Republicans on trade, so he wants a new trade deal but doesn’t want it subjected to Republican amendments or a Democratic veto. What he wants, then, is Trade Promotion Authority, also known as fast-track powers to strike a trade deal that would be ratified by Congress but not subject to amendment.

In this, he is obviously dependent on Republicans, since they are more likely to want a trade deal with either our European or Pacific allies. But supporting the president’s trade authority isn’t the same thing as supporting free trade. Normally, Obama would appear to have the upper hand: the more serious the reservations Democrats have about his trade plans, the more beneficial Republicans might see such a trade deal. In that, divided government and the two parties’ gap in support for trade would seem to work in Obama’s favor. But what if Democrats and Republicans both have the same concerns?

That is where the president has found himself on the issue as of late, and it’s a mostly ignored but somewhat fascinating consequence of Obama’s obsession with usurping Congress’s authority. At the Weekly Standard, Irwin Stelzer explains:

Start with the particular president who is requesting this authority. He is no George W. Bush, to whom Congress granted such authority. President Obama has made it clear that he will enforce those parts of any legislation or treaty that suit him, de facto amend legislation without seeking congressional approval, and write regulations that order nonenforcement of laws he does not like. Congress refused to pass his Dream Act, so he ordered the authorities to treat illegal aliens as if it had; enforcement of Obamacare’s employer mandate at the date specified in the law became inconvenient, so he unilaterally postponed it; he has decided not to enforce the federal law against the sale of marijuana. There’s more, but you get the idea.

It is therefore not unreasonable to suppose that a provision in one of these trade pacts that benefits some industry or company that later fails to toe the presidential line or pay financial obeisance to Democratic campaign committees will disappear in a haze of bureaucratic rulings. In short, whatever the theoretical benefits of free trade, they must be weighed against increasing this president’s ability to exercise even more extralegal power over American businesses. One example: The Asia deal might include a concession from Japan to ease imports of made-in-America vehicles. It is not beyond imagining that the president will interpret that to apply only to the green vehicles of which he is so fond.

The discussion about the president’s plans to announce in his State of the Union address that he will continue taking executive actions in lieu of recognizing the existence of Congress has, appropriately, centered on the legality of the proposed actions. That is, can the president do that?

Another interesting question, and one raised by Stelzer’s piece, is: even if the president can take such action, should he? We often speak about the president’s executive actions as if the only downside to them is if they get overturned later on by the courts. But the trade conundrum in which the president finds himself suggests there’s another possible downside: neither party trusts him to follow the law.

This is a damaging assessment, and it is one that is generally independent of public opinion. And that is potentially more of an obstacle to Obama anyway. He is no longer running for reelection, so public support only gets him so far. And there are only so many actions the president can take on his own. At yesterday’s White House briefing, Jay Carney said the president would work with Congress where he can, and do the rest on his own: “this is not an either-or proposition. It’s a both-and.” Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, don’t seem to agree.

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Obama Is Jimmy Carter Without Camp David

Next Tuesday a lot of media attention will be focused on President Obama’s State of the Union address. It need not be.

As a general matter, State of the Union addresses poll very well immediately after they are given but have no lasting effect. I expect this speech will be no different.

The problem facing Mr. Obama right now is diminishing support in how Americans view his competence and character. For example, a new Quinnipiac survey found that a majority of Americans view President Obama’s White House as incompetent (53 percent v. 42 percent) while a plurality (49 percent) believe he isn’t honest and trustworthy. Nearly eight in 10 (77 percent) consider the economy to be “not so good” or “poor.” And only 36 percent approve of his handling of health care; 59 percent disapprove. A State of the Union speech is powerless to shift these perceptions in any meaningful way.  Read More

Next Tuesday a lot of media attention will be focused on President Obama’s State of the Union address. It need not be.

As a general matter, State of the Union addresses poll very well immediately after they are given but have no lasting effect. I expect this speech will be no different.

The problem facing Mr. Obama right now is diminishing support in how Americans view his competence and character. For example, a new Quinnipiac survey found that a majority of Americans view President Obama’s White House as incompetent (53 percent v. 42 percent) while a plurality (49 percent) believe he isn’t honest and trustworthy. Nearly eight in 10 (77 percent) consider the economy to be “not so good” or “poor.” And only 36 percent approve of his handling of health care; 59 percent disapprove. A State of the Union speech is powerless to shift these perceptions in any meaningful way. 

Moreover, the president conceded to the New Yorker’s David Remnick that he’s overexposed. People are tuning Mr. Obama out. His words have been dramatically devalued; he’s seen as a person who talks a lot but just isn’t up to the job. He is Jimmy Carter without Camp David. 

The State of the Union address is a political ritual. The speech–which is almost always too long, undisciplined, and unmemorable–commands more attention than it deserves. Mr. Obama and his party will be in as bad a shape after it’s been delivered as they were before.

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Mike Lee Makes It Interesting

There remains no good reason why American television consumers must endure the monarchical monotony of the president’s annual State of the Union address. It is usually unnecessary and intolerably dull, though sometimes, when we’re lucky, it’s simply unnecessary. (Say this for Richard Nixon: according to the American Presidency Project, one of his SOTU addresses clocked in at under thirty minutes, while another was not delivered at all, but written–the way it was and should again be. Meanwhile Bill Clinton’s final SOTU may still be droning on.)

As long as we’re subjected to the speech, however, the opposition party’s official response is logical: the response itself is of limited value, but it serves as a reminder that the president is not the king, merely an elected official. The response is also a PR minefield; no one ever gives a memorable response unless it’s memorable for the wrong reasons–a flat speech, or, as was the case last year, a desire for a drink of water that gave the media the distraction it was looking for so reporters didn’t have to pretend they were listening to the text.

But now there is a third speech of the night. And, surprisingly, it has defied the odds to become the only (possibly) interesting address of the evening. One of the major Tea Party groups has backed in recent years a Tea Party response. The reason it’s interesting is that, depending on the speaker, it is just as much a response to the (Republican) response to the State of the Union. The speech benefits from the lower expectations of this bronze-medal address and the tension between the Tea Party and what they consider the “establishment” party leadership. But there’s an extra boost to the interest in this year’s Tea Party response: it’s being delivered by Mike Lee.

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There remains no good reason why American television consumers must endure the monarchical monotony of the president’s annual State of the Union address. It is usually unnecessary and intolerably dull, though sometimes, when we’re lucky, it’s simply unnecessary. (Say this for Richard Nixon: according to the American Presidency Project, one of his SOTU addresses clocked in at under thirty minutes, while another was not delivered at all, but written–the way it was and should again be. Meanwhile Bill Clinton’s final SOTU may still be droning on.)

As long as we’re subjected to the speech, however, the opposition party’s official response is logical: the response itself is of limited value, but it serves as a reminder that the president is not the king, merely an elected official. The response is also a PR minefield; no one ever gives a memorable response unless it’s memorable for the wrong reasons–a flat speech, or, as was the case last year, a desire for a drink of water that gave the media the distraction it was looking for so reporters didn’t have to pretend they were listening to the text.

But now there is a third speech of the night. And, surprisingly, it has defied the odds to become the only (possibly) interesting address of the evening. One of the major Tea Party groups has backed in recent years a Tea Party response. The reason it’s interesting is that, depending on the speaker, it is just as much a response to the (Republican) response to the State of the Union. The speech benefits from the lower expectations of this bronze-medal address and the tension between the Tea Party and what they consider the “establishment” party leadership. But there’s an extra boost to the interest in this year’s Tea Party response: it’s being delivered by Mike Lee.

The Utah senator combines the grassroots bona fides of other Tea Partiers with an energetic reform agenda–the latter being arguably more significant as the right seeks to find its way out of the wilderness. Ross Douthat, long a proponent of reform conservatism, notes that high-profile support for reform, such as that of Paul Ryan, has mostly gone nowhere, and adds:

Which is why the most consequential recent development for the G.O.P. might not actually be Chris Christie’s traffic scandal. It might, instead, be the fact that reform conservatism suddenly has national politicians in its corner.

The first is Mike Lee, the junior Senator from Utah, who has pivoted from leading the defund-Obamacare movement to basically becoming a one-stop shop for provocative reform ideas: in the last six months, his office has proposed a new family-friendly tax reform, reached across the aisle to work on criminal justice issues and offered significant new proposals on transportation and higher education reform.

The second is Marco Rubio, whose speech two weeks ago on the anniversary of the declaration of the war on poverty called for two major changes to the safety net: first, pooling federal antipoverty programs into a single fund that would allow more flexibility for state experiments; and second, replacing the earned-income tax credit with a direct wage subsidy designed to offer more help to low-income, single men.

The juxtaposition is noteworthy, because Rubio gave last year’s “official” GOP SOTU response despite rising to stardom as a Tea Party favorite, while Lee will give this year’s Tea Party response despite falling out of favor with some libertarians by advocating a community-minded conservatism with a focus on civil society.

Lee, then, has a foot in each camp. His hope is probably that he can blend the borders and blur the distinctions. What he’s more likely to find is that American conservatism was and remains a coalitional enterprise, and that he may not be granted the dual citizenship–Tea Partier and Establishmentarian–he seeks but rather be forced to choose.

That choice can be ignored at the moment because he is not considered an immediate prospective presidential candidate, which frees him up to shun either label and instead embrace reform. He also may combine elements of each in his response to the response to the SOTU. That means, strangely enough, that a vehicle established specifically for the purpose of elevating dissent within the ranks could be utilized to promote unity and consensus. That’s classic opposition-party behavior, of course, but Lee is clearly expecting–and planning for–a return to conservative governance.

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Obama’s State of the Union

The delivery of the annual State of the Union Address by the president is a high moment of state. But they have seldom been memorable, at least for the speech. Like most inaugural addresses, the next day they are used to wrap fish and forgotten. Indeed, in all my years of listening to them, I can only remember two lines.  In 1975, Gerald Ford’s first big line was, “The state of the Union is not good.” It was only the truth, but it was remarkably refreshing to hear it actually spoken. The second was 21 years later, when President Bill Clinton, having taken a shellacking in the mid-term elections that saw both houses of Congress in Republican hands for the first time since 1954, and a re-election to win, declared that “The era of big government is over.”

Bill Clinton, of course, has never suffered from an excess of ideology. I think he would come out in favor of a constitutional amendment against mom and apple pie if he thought it was a political winner. The same cannot be said for the president who will deliver the State of the Union Address tomorrow night. At his second inaugural speech two weeks ago, Obama delivered a sharply partisan, hard-left speech that said, only a little bit more indirectly, what the White House communications director said the next day, “There’s a moment of opportunity now that’s important. What’s frustrating is that we don’t have a political system or an opposition party worthy of the opportunity.”

Having devoted most of the inauguration speech to such tried-and-true liberal causes as gay rights and climate change—and gotten a fair amount of blow back even from usually reliably liberal media for its partisanship—the conventional wisdom among the chattering classes is that he will now pivot to jobs and the economy. But as Byron York points out, that’s what he is always about to do, he just never does it.

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The delivery of the annual State of the Union Address by the president is a high moment of state. But they have seldom been memorable, at least for the speech. Like most inaugural addresses, the next day they are used to wrap fish and forgotten. Indeed, in all my years of listening to them, I can only remember two lines.  In 1975, Gerald Ford’s first big line was, “The state of the Union is not good.” It was only the truth, but it was remarkably refreshing to hear it actually spoken. The second was 21 years later, when President Bill Clinton, having taken a shellacking in the mid-term elections that saw both houses of Congress in Republican hands for the first time since 1954, and a re-election to win, declared that “The era of big government is over.”

Bill Clinton, of course, has never suffered from an excess of ideology. I think he would come out in favor of a constitutional amendment against mom and apple pie if he thought it was a political winner. The same cannot be said for the president who will deliver the State of the Union Address tomorrow night. At his second inaugural speech two weeks ago, Obama delivered a sharply partisan, hard-left speech that said, only a little bit more indirectly, what the White House communications director said the next day, “There’s a moment of opportunity now that’s important. What’s frustrating is that we don’t have a political system or an opposition party worthy of the opportunity.”

Having devoted most of the inauguration speech to such tried-and-true liberal causes as gay rights and climate change—and gotten a fair amount of blow back even from usually reliably liberal media for its partisanship—the conventional wisdom among the chattering classes is that he will now pivot to jobs and the economy. But as Byron York points out, that’s what he is always about to do, he just never does it.

George Bush devoted much of the first year of his second term to trying to reform Social Security. He got nowhere, of course, because the Democrats shamelessly demagogued the issue rather than engaged it. At least he tried to reach across the aisle in hopes of doing what needed to be done for the sake of the Union. After Obama’s inaugural address, it seems unlikely that he will even try to reach across the aisle. As Michael Barone explains:

Obama may be actually sincere in believing that every decent person with common sense would share his views. After all, just about everybody in the places he has chosen to live—Manhattan, Cambridge, the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago—does. Far from being an instinctive compromiser with respect for those with different views, he seems to be an angry non-compromiser with no idea how decent people could disagree with him.

Meanwhile, Ira Stroll has come up with an excellent suggested speech for Senator Marco Rubio, who will be giving the Republican rebuttal that is chockablock with attempts to reach across the aisle.

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SOTU Responses a 2016 Primary Preview

Political writers have come in for some not-unjustified criticism in the past few months for jumping the gun on the 2016 presidential race. With three years to go before the voters start voting and caucusing to choose the next Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, there is something to be said for keeping the horse race reporting about that long distant contest to a minimum. But on Tuesday night, it will be difficult to blame pundits for thinking ahead when two of the leading contenders for the GOP nod in 2016 will both be issuing official responses to the president’s State of the Union address. Florida Senator Marco Rubio will be delivering the official Republican response to President Obama immediately following the SOTU that will be carried by all the networks. But right after that, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul will give the Tea Party response to the president in a talk that will be streamed on the website of the Tea Party Express group.

The idea of a Tea Party response to both the president and the Republican Party is a relatively recent addition to the ritual of the SOTU. But whatever the virtues of offering a third perspective to an American public that barely has the patience to sit through one speech, the only rationale for having Rand Paul respond to both Obama and Rubio is that he is hoping to exploit the opportunity to burnish his reputation as the true standard-bearer for the party’s base. Since both Rubio and Paul are products of the Tea Party and have stayed true to the movement’s principles on fiscal issues, the competition for the dwindling audience interested in Republican views late on Tuesday night must be considered the first debate of the 2016 primary season.

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Political writers have come in for some not-unjustified criticism in the past few months for jumping the gun on the 2016 presidential race. With three years to go before the voters start voting and caucusing to choose the next Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, there is something to be said for keeping the horse race reporting about that long distant contest to a minimum. But on Tuesday night, it will be difficult to blame pundits for thinking ahead when two of the leading contenders for the GOP nod in 2016 will both be issuing official responses to the president’s State of the Union address. Florida Senator Marco Rubio will be delivering the official Republican response to President Obama immediately following the SOTU that will be carried by all the networks. But right after that, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul will give the Tea Party response to the president in a talk that will be streamed on the website of the Tea Party Express group.

The idea of a Tea Party response to both the president and the Republican Party is a relatively recent addition to the ritual of the SOTU. But whatever the virtues of offering a third perspective to an American public that barely has the patience to sit through one speech, the only rationale for having Rand Paul respond to both Obama and Rubio is that he is hoping to exploit the opportunity to burnish his reputation as the true standard-bearer for the party’s base. Since both Rubio and Paul are products of the Tea Party and have stayed true to the movement’s principles on fiscal issues, the competition for the dwindling audience interested in Republican views late on Tuesday night must be considered the first debate of the 2016 primary season.

While the field of potential GOP presidential candidates is large and talented, Rubio and Paul are two of the most formidable. And though neither made as big a splash as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie did this week by eating a donut on the David Letterman show, with Rubio’s appearance on the cover of TIME magazine as his party’s “savior” and Paul’s foreign policy address at the Heritage Foundation, the Tuesday night match-up will heighten the impression that these two have already secured places in the top tier in the 2016 contest.

Paul’s insertion of himself into the SOTU speechifying is itself a bit of stretch if you consider that the idea of a Tea Party response was supposed to symbolize an alternative to the Republican establishment. Rubio was, after all, one of the movement’s success stories since he ran as a Tea Party insurgent against an establishment Republican in the 2010 Florida Senate primary and has stayed true to its credo by bucking the GOP leadership and voting against the fiscal cliff deal crafted by party leaders with Vice President Biden last month.

The main differences between Rubio and Paul are not on the spending and taxing issues that created the Tea Party in 2009 and 2010 in response to the Obama administration’s stimulus boondoggle and ObamaCare. They are instead about foreign policy. Rubio is an advocate of a strong defense and a robust pursuit of U.S. interests, including fighting the war on Islamist terrorists. Paul is moving away from the radical isolationism of his father to, as he stated in his Heritage speech, a stance that positions him as the candidate of the old GOP establishment “realists” that staffed the administration of the first President George Bush.

Paul is, as the New York Times reported today, the man who has inherited his father’s libertarian followers even as he also has tried to morph into a figure that the mainstream of the party can live with. That leaves plenty of room for disagreement with Rubio on issues where the latter is closer to mainstream Republicans, such as foreign policy issues like the alliance with Israel.

But the main differences between Rubio and Paul are about the latter’s appetite for massive cuts to the military via the sequester and military assistance to Israel (which Paul still opposes). On economic issues and entitlement reform as well as social issues and gun control, there isn’t much to choose between them. All of which leads us to wonder what exactly is the point of allowing Rand Paul to pose as the alternative to the official GOP response being delivered by a Tea Party stalwart except to highlight the personal rivalry between the two men.

We’ve a long way to go until the next presidential election, but no one should doubt that Tuesday night is the unofficial start to the 2016 race.

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Rubio’s Response: Risks and Rewards

When Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a whip-smart wonk and naturally competent executive, was tapped to give the Republican response to a February 2009 address by President Obama, it was considered something of an audition for a presidential run in 2012. The speech, however, bombed, and the presidential run never materialized. “Jindal’s Response to Obama Address Panned by Fellow Republicans” was the headline in the following day’s Bloomberg story on the speech, and one Republican strategist summed up the disappointment on the right when he told Bloomberg that “A lot of Republicans I am speaking with were expecting this would be like Obama’s moment in 2004”–the entrance of a star onto the national stage.

Jindal, of course, recovered from the speech just fine and went on to easily win reelection and continue to govern impressively in Louisiana. He retains his stature as a conservative reformer and leading light of the party, as well as a refreshingly intellectual and affect-free politician. A difficult entry into national politics is not the end of the world–just ask Bill Clinton, whose 1988 Democratic National Convention speech was a disaster. But it can dim the buzz around a rising political star and delay the moment when even a good politician finally gains national traction. So a cost-benefit analysis must be conducted by any aspiring political leader with the opportunity to respond to the president’s State of the Union speech, which this year will be given by Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Those wondering why Rubio accepted the address may have received an answer today when Quinnipiac released their latest public approval polling data:

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When Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a whip-smart wonk and naturally competent executive, was tapped to give the Republican response to a February 2009 address by President Obama, it was considered something of an audition for a presidential run in 2012. The speech, however, bombed, and the presidential run never materialized. “Jindal’s Response to Obama Address Panned by Fellow Republicans” was the headline in the following day’s Bloomberg story on the speech, and one Republican strategist summed up the disappointment on the right when he told Bloomberg that “A lot of Republicans I am speaking with were expecting this would be like Obama’s moment in 2004”–the entrance of a star onto the national stage.

Jindal, of course, recovered from the speech just fine and went on to easily win reelection and continue to govern impressively in Louisiana. He retains his stature as a conservative reformer and leading light of the party, as well as a refreshingly intellectual and affect-free politician. A difficult entry into national politics is not the end of the world–just ask Bill Clinton, whose 1988 Democratic National Convention speech was a disaster. But it can dim the buzz around a rising political star and delay the moment when even a good politician finally gains national traction. So a cost-benefit analysis must be conducted by any aspiring political leader with the opportunity to respond to the president’s State of the Union speech, which this year will be given by Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Those wondering why Rubio accepted the address may have received an answer today when Quinnipiac released their latest public approval polling data:

Ms. Clinton’s favorability is higher than those measured for other national figures:

46 – 41 percent for Vice President Joseph Biden;

25 – 29 percent for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, with 45 percent who don’t know enough about him to form an opinion;

20 – 42 percent for House Speaker John Boehner;

27 – 15 percent for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, with 57 percent who don’t know enough;

34 – 36 percent for U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan;

43 – 33 percent for new Secretary of State John Kerry;

14 – 18 percent for Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, with 67 percent who don’t know enough about him.

Rubio’s numbers show that he is not well known nationally, but that those who do know enough about him to register an opinion tend to approve of him. This would have to be part of any of the senator’s calculations with regard to the State of the Union response. It is a difficult spot for any politician because the president is the leader of the free world conducting a tradition full of pomp and circumstance which puts this power dynamic on full display. It is also a long speech generally, which means those watching at home may be tired of listening to political speechmaking.

It can also be a difficult audience for the politician tasked with responding, because many viewers at home will not have had time to digest the speech and decide where exactly they come down on the policy facets of the address, and the response can be seen as abrupt. There is also the challenge of partisanship: the president will say a great many things that command broad public support, and will couch his policy prescriptions in aspirational tones meant to rise above the partisan fray (though President Obama is uniquely poor at this, given to taking cheap shots at both audience members and Republican figures working behind the scenes). As such, given the tension and rancor in Washington, there is always the danger of appearing ill-tempered and ungenerous at the wrong moment for the opposition politician who follows the president.

Yet there are also rewards to go along with the risks of appearing on such a stage. These include, prominently, the opportunity for a politician to introduce himself to the national electorate long before a debate-heavy primary process or general election in which both campaigns are inevitably jolted by an injection of negative advertising. The old adage about getting one chance to make a first impression is no less applicable to national politics. Letting your opponent define you can be among the most damaging mistakes to make in any election. The stakes are even higher for someone like Rubio, who tends to win over his audience–as the Quinnipiac poll shows.

Rubio’s summer appearance on “The Daily Show” was one such example of this, but so was his willingness to champion an immigration reform process vocally opposed by talk radio commentators like Rush Limbaugh and then impress Limbaugh enough to win his praise after appearing on Limbaugh’s radio show. If Rubio is truly contemplating a run for president in 2016, he is unlikely to pass up an opportunity to introduce himself, on his own terms, to as many American voters as possible.

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A Diminished Obama Strikes a Tepid Tone

President Obama launched his re-election campaign tonight with a State of the Union speech that attempted to conjure up the spirit of an earlier era of national unity even as he sought to focus national resentment on wealthy Americans and his political opponents in Congress.

With no record of accomplishment to his credit, other than the unpopular Obamacare and stimulus, Obama put forward a limited agenda of government intervention in the economy and the tax code in a laundry list of initiatives that did little to break new ground on any issue and was bereft of the passion and vision that drove his 2008 campaign for the presidency. All in all, it was 65 minutes that ought to worry Democrats more than it annoyed Republicans.

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President Obama launched his re-election campaign tonight with a State of the Union speech that attempted to conjure up the spirit of an earlier era of national unity even as he sought to focus national resentment on wealthy Americans and his political opponents in Congress.

With no record of accomplishment to his credit, other than the unpopular Obamacare and stimulus, Obama put forward a limited agenda of government intervention in the economy and the tax code in a laundry list of initiatives that did little to break new ground on any issue and was bereft of the passion and vision that drove his 2008 campaign for the presidency. All in all, it was 65 minutes that ought to worry Democrats more than it annoyed Republicans.

The president knows he will get nothing passed this year, and his speech reflected that reality. He began and ended with the killing of Osama bin Laden. In between he spoke of a peace dividend from the end of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he would use on building projects and green energy production. He called for a massive bailout of homeowners even as he pandered to public opinion by saying there would be no more bailouts for banks. He vowed to prosecute those responsible for the mortgage crisis and said teenagers would no longer be allowed to drop out of high school, no matter how much trouble they were causing. No mention was made of either Obamacare or the stimulus. Nor did he speak of the Keystone XL pipeline project that he cancelled. He called for lower taxes, less regulation and more exploitation of our natural resources even though he has raised taxes, increased regulation and made it more difficult for the nation to use more of its oil and gas and that of our neighbor Canada.

On foreign affairs, Obama spoke of victory in Iraq and Afghanistan and pretended he had increased Iran’s isolation rather than wasting three years on failed engagement and feckless diplomacy that gave the Islamist regime more time to build a nuclear weapon. He claimed to be Israel’s greatest friend even though he has used his time in office to pick constant fights with the government of the Jewish state. The shout out to wavering liberal Jewish Democrats betrayed an administration clearly worried about November.

The only substantive portion of the speech dealt with his desire to raise taxes on millionaires. Even if he got his way and raised the rates for millionaires to 30 percent it would do little to deal with the deficit or pay for the runaway costs of entitlements. But that isn’t really the point of his advocacy. Obama isn’t interested in raising those taxes to achieve an economic purpose. He has seized on this phony issue in order to exploit it politically this fall. For all of his talk about unity, his decision to let loose the dogs of class warfare rhetoric doesn’t so much seek division as to treat it as his golden ticket to re-election.

While Democrats may have been encouraged in recent weeks by the spectacle of Republican presidential candidates tearing each other apart, often employing the rhetorical devices of the left, they could not have been encouraged by the tepid tone and lack of vision in Obama’s speech. His unwillingness to speak about what he has done and instead concentrate on bashing the rich seemed to be more the strategy of a challenger rather than an incumbent.

His claim that America “is back” was empty braggadocio that makes little sense given the grave state of the economy. Obama’s rally cry about American greatness seemed stuck in nostalgia for a bygone era of massive government spending projects and an economy based in manufacturing rather than information and technology. The result of this empty talk was a speech that struck a sour, flat note just when he needed to inspire.

All of this should cause Democrats to worry just at the moment when they were starting to feel good about 2012. Though the president has many advantages heading into the campaign, including weak potential opponents, his inability to stand on his record and his loss of faith in the grand vision he ran in 2008 foreshadows serious problems later this year.

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Obama’s SOTU Borrowed from Other Famous Speeches

President Obama’s State of the Union on Tuesday was widely panned as “boring” by critics. But could the reason be because Americans have heard it all before?

U.S. News & World Report columnist Alvin Felzenberg argued that Obama’s speech was “tantamount to plagiarism” and that it “contained enough recycled ideas and lines lifted from speeches of others to make historians wince.”

And while it looks like that an overuse of clichés — as opposed to outright plagiarism — is responsible for the reused lines, Tuesday’s State of the Union does seem to have borrowed heavily from other famous speeches.

Here are some of the misappropriated lines, according to Felzenberg:

• Obama’s references to American as a “light to the world” were taken from Woodrow Wilson.

• The theme of the “American family” resembled Mario Cuomo’s proclamations of the New York “family” in 1993.

• At a 1991 speech in the U.S., Margaret Thatcher said that “no other nation has been built upon an idea.” Obama said something similar in his speech Tuesday.

• The reference to a “Sputnik Moment” channeled Dwight D. Eisenhower.

• By honoring “ordinary heroes,” Obama was taking a page from Ronald Reagan.

• Obama remarked that, “I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth,” which bears a striking resemblance to JFK’s assertion that “I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation.”

It’s not unusual for politicians to quote or borrow from great historical leaders in speeches. But it’s noteworthy that Obama, who was supposed to be such a phenomenal communicator, is so reliant on the words of others. For all the rhetorical prowess attributed to him during the 2008 election, his speeches have consistently fallen short of public expectations since he’s taken office.

President Obama’s State of the Union on Tuesday was widely panned as “boring” by critics. But could the reason be because Americans have heard it all before?

U.S. News & World Report columnist Alvin Felzenberg argued that Obama’s speech was “tantamount to plagiarism” and that it “contained enough recycled ideas and lines lifted from speeches of others to make historians wince.”

And while it looks like that an overuse of clichés — as opposed to outright plagiarism — is responsible for the reused lines, Tuesday’s State of the Union does seem to have borrowed heavily from other famous speeches.

Here are some of the misappropriated lines, according to Felzenberg:

• Obama’s references to American as a “light to the world” were taken from Woodrow Wilson.

• The theme of the “American family” resembled Mario Cuomo’s proclamations of the New York “family” in 1993.

• At a 1991 speech in the U.S., Margaret Thatcher said that “no other nation has been built upon an idea.” Obama said something similar in his speech Tuesday.

• The reference to a “Sputnik Moment” channeled Dwight D. Eisenhower.

• By honoring “ordinary heroes,” Obama was taking a page from Ronald Reagan.

• Obama remarked that, “I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth,” which bears a striking resemblance to JFK’s assertion that “I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation.”

It’s not unusual for politicians to quote or borrow from great historical leaders in speeches. But it’s noteworthy that Obama, who was supposed to be such a phenomenal communicator, is so reliant on the words of others. For all the rhetorical prowess attributed to him during the 2008 election, his speeches have consistently fallen short of public expectations since he’s taken office.

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After the Happy Talk: A $1.5 Trillion Deficit

According to a new report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the federal budget deficit is on course to reach nearly $1.5 trillion this year, the biggest budget gap in history and one of the largest as a share of the economy since World War II. This year’s deficit would be the highest on record and would equal about 9.8 percent of the economy, the CBO said, slightly smaller than the 2009 budget gap, which at $1.4 trillion amounted to nearly 10 percent of the gross domestic product. The CBO forecast is on track to remain well above $1 trillion in 2012, the fourth year in a row. As a result, “debt held by the public will probably jump from 40 percent of GDP at the end of fiscal year 2008 to nearly 70 percent at the end of fiscal year 2011.”

These numbers are alarming. And today’s report highlights just how irresponsible President Obama is by not seriously addressing our exploding debt, which means addressing our entitlement crisis, which means (above all) reforming Medicare.

Long after last night’s State of the Union happy talk is forgotten, these fiscal realities will still be with us. The president has a moral obligation to confront this problem rather than deny it, to deal with the world as it is rather than as he wishes it to be.

According to a new report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the federal budget deficit is on course to reach nearly $1.5 trillion this year, the biggest budget gap in history and one of the largest as a share of the economy since World War II. This year’s deficit would be the highest on record and would equal about 9.8 percent of the economy, the CBO said, slightly smaller than the 2009 budget gap, which at $1.4 trillion amounted to nearly 10 percent of the gross domestic product. The CBO forecast is on track to remain well above $1 trillion in 2012, the fourth year in a row. As a result, “debt held by the public will probably jump from 40 percent of GDP at the end of fiscal year 2008 to nearly 70 percent at the end of fiscal year 2011.”

These numbers are alarming. And today’s report highlights just how irresponsible President Obama is by not seriously addressing our exploding debt, which means addressing our entitlement crisis, which means (above all) reforming Medicare.

Long after last night’s State of the Union happy talk is forgotten, these fiscal realities will still be with us. The president has a moral obligation to confront this problem rather than deny it, to deal with the world as it is rather than as he wishes it to be.

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The President’s Speech: An Irresponsible Performance

State of the Union speeches are typically unimpressive and unmemorable. Last night’s address by President Obama was in that tradition. While his delivery was fine, the speech itself was mediocre — flat, undisciplined and unfocused, at times pedestrian and banal, with goals seemingly pulled out of thin air (e.g., by 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean-energy sources).

The speech was also oddly uncreative, with Obama dusting off slogans and ideas from past State of the Union speeches. For example, on the campaign trail in 2008 and during the first two years of his presidency, Barack Obama portrayed himself as the great enemy of earmarks. Perhaps the reason he has to keep reminding us of his antipathy for earmarks is because he has repeatedly signed into law legislation that contained thousands of them.

Still, this doesn’t mean the speech was unimportant. It was, in fact, quite significant in terms of highlighting the president’s cast of mind and how he understands, or fails to understand, the moment we’re in.

The State of the Union address reaffirmed that Barack Obama remains a man of the left. He spent most of the speech championing an array of new programs, explaining why he believes we need to expand the size, reach, scope, and cost of the federal government.

It was as if the president were awakening Leviathan from a two-year slumber rather than two years of hyperactivity.

Beyond that, though, Obama spoke as if he were living in an alternate universe — one where a $14 trillion debt and trillion dollar a year deficit don’t exist; where our entitlement programs are basically solvent and sound, in need of, at most, tweaking around the margins; and where the 2010 midterm election wasn’t a repudiation of the president’s progressive agenda.

The president dealt with our fiscal crisis as if it were a triviality, its importance on par with the need for more solar panels and high-speed rails.

Mr. Obama, I think, is misreading the public mood. Many Americans are unnerved by our fiscal imbalance, which helps explain the rise of the Tea Party movement. But whether or not Obama is out of touch with the public is, in one respect, irrelevant. Facts are stubborn things — and the fact is that we’re facing a crushing entitlement crisis that is getting worse literally by the hour. If we don’t come to grips with it soon, we are likely to experience something similar to the social unrest that is sweeping Europe.

More than mediocre, then, I found the president’s speech to be irresponsible. As the elected leader of the nation — and as one of the architects of our fiscal crisis — Obama has an obligation to address it in a serious, systematic, and intellectually honest manner. Instead, he is eschewing his governing duties. He is living in a world of his own imagination. That might be fine for writers of fiction and fairy tales. But for the president of the United States, it is quite a bad thing indeed.

State of the Union speeches are typically unimpressive and unmemorable. Last night’s address by President Obama was in that tradition. While his delivery was fine, the speech itself was mediocre — flat, undisciplined and unfocused, at times pedestrian and banal, with goals seemingly pulled out of thin air (e.g., by 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean-energy sources).

The speech was also oddly uncreative, with Obama dusting off slogans and ideas from past State of the Union speeches. For example, on the campaign trail in 2008 and during the first two years of his presidency, Barack Obama portrayed himself as the great enemy of earmarks. Perhaps the reason he has to keep reminding us of his antipathy for earmarks is because he has repeatedly signed into law legislation that contained thousands of them.

Still, this doesn’t mean the speech was unimportant. It was, in fact, quite significant in terms of highlighting the president’s cast of mind and how he understands, or fails to understand, the moment we’re in.

The State of the Union address reaffirmed that Barack Obama remains a man of the left. He spent most of the speech championing an array of new programs, explaining why he believes we need to expand the size, reach, scope, and cost of the federal government.

It was as if the president were awakening Leviathan from a two-year slumber rather than two years of hyperactivity.

Beyond that, though, Obama spoke as if he were living in an alternate universe — one where a $14 trillion debt and trillion dollar a year deficit don’t exist; where our entitlement programs are basically solvent and sound, in need of, at most, tweaking around the margins; and where the 2010 midterm election wasn’t a repudiation of the president’s progressive agenda.

The president dealt with our fiscal crisis as if it were a triviality, its importance on par with the need for more solar panels and high-speed rails.

Mr. Obama, I think, is misreading the public mood. Many Americans are unnerved by our fiscal imbalance, which helps explain the rise of the Tea Party movement. But whether or not Obama is out of touch with the public is, in one respect, irrelevant. Facts are stubborn things — and the fact is that we’re facing a crushing entitlement crisis that is getting worse literally by the hour. If we don’t come to grips with it soon, we are likely to experience something similar to the social unrest that is sweeping Europe.

More than mediocre, then, I found the president’s speech to be irresponsible. As the elected leader of the nation — and as one of the architects of our fiscal crisis — Obama has an obligation to address it in a serious, systematic, and intellectually honest manner. Instead, he is eschewing his governing duties. He is living in a world of his own imagination. That might be fine for writers of fiction and fairy tales. But for the president of the United States, it is quite a bad thing indeed.

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Obama’s Moment to Redefine the Modern Middle East

Somehow it’s hard to get too worked up about the formalized rituals of the State of the Union when real news is happening half a world away. In the Middle East, revolutions, for good and for ill, are breaking out, while back in Washington, President Obama is touting the latest clean-energy boondoggles. All he had to say about the ongoing, exciting events was one line: “the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of the people.” What about the people of Lebanon? Or of Egypt? Don’t they deserve support too? And don’t the Tunisians battling for democracy against the security forces of the old regime deserve more than a throwaway line near the end of an hour-long address?

It is quite possible, even likely, that recent upheavals will amount to little. Many people, myself included, got our hopes up in 2005 when the Cedar Revolution overthrew Syrian domination in Lebanon and the people of Iraq turned out in droves to vote. Those hopes were swiftly dashed; indeed, this week the representative of the Cedar Revolution, Saad Hariri, ignominiously lost the prime minister’s job as Hezbollah and its patrons in Syria and Iran flexed their muscles. But it is also possible — not likely but possible — that the toppling of the Tunisian regime could have a ripple effect in this sclerotic region. This could be the most important moment for American diplomacy since the toppling of the Berlin Wall.

Certainly there is little precedent for the mass outpouring of protest in Egypt against the Mubarak regime, which is just as decrepit as was the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. The stakes in Egypt, however, are much higher, given that it’s much bigger than Tunisia and has a much larger, active Muslim Brotherhood that could take advantage of chaos to seize power.

At a moment like this, it would be comforting to see in the Oval Office an old diplomatic hand like George H.W. Bush — and I say this as someone who was never a big fan of the elder Bush. I do think, however, that despite some missteps (google the Chicken Kiev speech if you’re under 40), he did a brilliant job of managing a volatile situation. I do not mean to slight the contributions of brave dissidents or even of Mikhail Gorbachev, but nevertheless, the creation of democracies across Eastern Europe is in substantial measure the legacy of Ronald Reagan and his predecessors going back to Truman, who confronted the “evil empire,” and of Bush the Elder, who skillfully managed its dissolution. Read More

Somehow it’s hard to get too worked up about the formalized rituals of the State of the Union when real news is happening half a world away. In the Middle East, revolutions, for good and for ill, are breaking out, while back in Washington, President Obama is touting the latest clean-energy boondoggles. All he had to say about the ongoing, exciting events was one line: “the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of the people.” What about the people of Lebanon? Or of Egypt? Don’t they deserve support too? And don’t the Tunisians battling for democracy against the security forces of the old regime deserve more than a throwaway line near the end of an hour-long address?

It is quite possible, even likely, that recent upheavals will amount to little. Many people, myself included, got our hopes up in 2005 when the Cedar Revolution overthrew Syrian domination in Lebanon and the people of Iraq turned out in droves to vote. Those hopes were swiftly dashed; indeed, this week the representative of the Cedar Revolution, Saad Hariri, ignominiously lost the prime minister’s job as Hezbollah and its patrons in Syria and Iran flexed their muscles. But it is also possible — not likely but possible — that the toppling of the Tunisian regime could have a ripple effect in this sclerotic region. This could be the most important moment for American diplomacy since the toppling of the Berlin Wall.

Certainly there is little precedent for the mass outpouring of protest in Egypt against the Mubarak regime, which is just as decrepit as was the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. The stakes in Egypt, however, are much higher, given that it’s much bigger than Tunisia and has a much larger, active Muslim Brotherhood that could take advantage of chaos to seize power.

At a moment like this, it would be comforting to see in the Oval Office an old diplomatic hand like George H.W. Bush — and I say this as someone who was never a big fan of the elder Bush. I do think, however, that despite some missteps (google the Chicken Kiev speech if you’re under 40), he did a brilliant job of managing a volatile situation. I do not mean to slight the contributions of brave dissidents or even of Mikhail Gorbachev, but nevertheless, the creation of democracies across Eastern Europe is in substantial measure the legacy of Ronald Reagan and his predecessors going back to Truman, who confronted the “evil empire,” and of Bush the Elder, who skillfully managed its dissolution.

Unfortunately, instead of someone like Bush, who had served as an ambassador, CIA director, and vice president, we have in the Oval Office a president with no foreign-policy credentials. This president seems to think that the entire region revolves around the moribund Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” Already Obama missed a crucial opportunity in the summer of 2009 to encourage the Green Revolution in Iran. Let us hope that will be a learning experience. This time around, we need a president fully engaged in the moment — a president who will speak for the aspirations of the people of the Middle East (more than one line, please), while also working to provide a soft landing for longtime dictators and to ensure that radicals don’t seize power.

For all his lack of experience, Obama is no newcomer to the job. He is a fast learner, and he has a gift for rhetoric the likes of which always eluded George H.W. Bush. This may very well be his moment: the moment for redefining the modern Middle East. He should seize it — if he’s not too distracted with the domestic priorities that as usual dominated the State of the Union.

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LIVE BLOG: Paul Ryan

The Republican response — indeed, the opposition-party response — to the State of the Union is usually the graveyard of upward ambitions. Not tonight. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman, is giving what is certainly the best such response in memory, and will — and should — spark serious talk about him as the Republican nominee next year. He has said flatly he’s not running. Maybe it would be wiser for a 41-year-old like Ryan to wait until 2016. But this speech reminds us that the deep bench of younger politicians — with Ryan and Marco Rubio and Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, among many others — really belongs to the GOP.

The Republican response — indeed, the opposition-party response — to the State of the Union is usually the graveyard of upward ambitions. Not tonight. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman, is giving what is certainly the best such response in memory, and will — and should — spark serious talk about him as the Republican nominee next year. He has said flatly he’s not running. Maybe it would be wiser for a 41-year-old like Ryan to wait until 2016. But this speech reminds us that the deep bench of younger politicians — with Ryan and Marco Rubio and Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, among many others — really belongs to the GOP.

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LIVE BLOG: Congressional Autograph Hounds

Forget about the unsightly and sophomoric partisan displays at past State of the Union speeches. Nothing is as bad as the spectacle of members of our House of Representatives and Senate besieging the president asking for his autograph on his way out of the chamber. At one point, the president could be heard joking about those signed programs winding up on eBay. It was a joke, but I’d bet that most of the audience on television believes it.

Forget about the unsightly and sophomoric partisan displays at past State of the Union speeches. Nothing is as bad as the spectacle of members of our House of Representatives and Senate besieging the president asking for his autograph on his way out of the chamber. At one point, the president could be heard joking about those signed programs winding up on eBay. It was a joke, but I’d bet that most of the audience on television believes it.

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LIVE BLOG: Spending Freeze Again

Obama calls for a five-year spending freeze. Sounds a lot like the three-year spending freeze he proposed at last year’s State of the Union — and then promptly ignored.

“He came out with the same thing last year,” a key GOP-er told US News and World Report tonight, “but still came out with $70 billion in new spending.”

Obama calls for a five-year spending freeze. Sounds a lot like the three-year spending freeze he proposed at last year’s State of the Union — and then promptly ignored.

“He came out with the same thing last year,” a key GOP-er told US News and World Report tonight, “but still came out with $70 billion in new spending.”

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Forget Mixed Seating. How About the President Just Mailing It In?

In the wake of President Obama’s call for more civility in the wake of the tragedy in Arizona, some in his party are seeking a symbolic effort to play down partisanship during one of the Capitol’s annual displays of partisanship: the State of the Union speech. Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado has called for mixed seating during the event. The Democratic leaders like it, and Republicans, who are leery of being portrayed as insufficiently sensitive or overly partisan, are not opposing the plan.

Is there anything wrong with the idea? Not really. The tradition of having Democrats sit on one side of the Chamber and Republicans on the other is based on the way Congress operates when it is in a normal session. Congressional seating patterns, not to mention the existence of organized political parties, are nowhere to be found in the Constitution.

However, it is not clear that mixed seating will achieve the avowed purpose of those advocating this measure, which is to avoid the sophomoric displays of partisanship that have become a regular feature of State of the Union speeches. While representatives and senators from both parties stand and applaud, as they should, during the president’s entrance, once the speech starts, the two sides morph into a congressional version of a college football game, where the supporters of the two teams divide the stadium and engage in organized cheers. It doesn’t matter which party holds the White House or Congress. Every year, the president can count on raucous cheers and standing ovations from his fellow party members in the chamber while members of the other party ostentatiously stay seated and silent.

Will mixed seating prevent a recurrence of this nonsense? The answer here is probably not. When the president speaks a line that is designed to appeal to the sensibilities of his own party — for example, one urging Congress not to repeal his health-care program — most Democrats are likely to stand and cheer while Republicans will remain seated (and need to restrain themselves from muttering their disapproval, which would lead to accusations of bad manners, such as those aimed at Justice Samuel Alito, who silently voiced his disapproval at a presidential barb aimed at the Supreme Court last year). The odds are, Democrats will get up and applaud and Republicans will not at certain points in the speech. And they will do so even if they have not clumped together by party. Read More

In the wake of President Obama’s call for more civility in the wake of the tragedy in Arizona, some in his party are seeking a symbolic effort to play down partisanship during one of the Capitol’s annual displays of partisanship: the State of the Union speech. Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado has called for mixed seating during the event. The Democratic leaders like it, and Republicans, who are leery of being portrayed as insufficiently sensitive or overly partisan, are not opposing the plan.

Is there anything wrong with the idea? Not really. The tradition of having Democrats sit on one side of the Chamber and Republicans on the other is based on the way Congress operates when it is in a normal session. Congressional seating patterns, not to mention the existence of organized political parties, are nowhere to be found in the Constitution.

However, it is not clear that mixed seating will achieve the avowed purpose of those advocating this measure, which is to avoid the sophomoric displays of partisanship that have become a regular feature of State of the Union speeches. While representatives and senators from both parties stand and applaud, as they should, during the president’s entrance, once the speech starts, the two sides morph into a congressional version of a college football game, where the supporters of the two teams divide the stadium and engage in organized cheers. It doesn’t matter which party holds the White House or Congress. Every year, the president can count on raucous cheers and standing ovations from his fellow party members in the chamber while members of the other party ostentatiously stay seated and silent.

Will mixed seating prevent a recurrence of this nonsense? The answer here is probably not. When the president speaks a line that is designed to appeal to the sensibilities of his own party — for example, one urging Congress not to repeal his health-care program — most Democrats are likely to stand and cheer while Republicans will remain seated (and need to restrain themselves from muttering their disapproval, which would lead to accusations of bad manners, such as those aimed at Justice Samuel Alito, who silently voiced his disapproval at a presidential barb aimed at the Supreme Court last year). The odds are, Democrats will get up and applaud and Republicans will not at certain points in the speech. And they will do so even if they have not clumped together by party.

An even better suggestion than mixed seating would be to do away with this televised extravaganza altogether. While the Constitution does mandate that the president report to the Congress annually on the state of the union, it does not say he needs to go there and speak to them in person on national TV. Until the 20th century, the practice (initiated by Thomas Jefferson, who thought the speech that his two predecessors had delivered was too reminiscent of the British monarch’s annual speech from the throne) was for the president to write his report and then have it delivered via messenger to the Congress, where the Clerk of the House publicly read it. Woodrow Wilson revived the practice of delivering it in person; and as first radio and then television entered into the question, it became a highly choreographed ritual that served as a valuable PR tool for every president.

The point is, if ending the obnoxious partisanship and pointless rituals of the occasion is the goal, the president can write and then deliver his speech from the Oval Office, something that would satisfy his constitutional obligation without forcing the nation to endure a pointless spectacle. While I am sure that no president will take up this suggestion, doing so will not only end the partisanship that nobody likes but might also encourage presidents to stick to serious policy points and avoid the smarmy feel-good touches (such as singling out praiseworthy citizens who have been invited to sit in the gallery) that have made the speech an even lengthier and more boring ordeal that it needs to be.

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MSNBC’s Selective History

Courtesy of Newsbusters, MSNBC is airing a promo for President Obama’s forthcoming State of the Union. It features video from previous State of the Union speeches. The presidents you see and hear from are, in order, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.

Following the clips, you read these words: “America Always Believes in a Better Future.”

So who might be missing from this pantheon? Try Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, just for starters. Perhaps at MSNBC, those Republicans are viewed as an obstacle to a better future.

The slogan “Lean Forward” might be better understood as “Lean Left.” And in MSNBC’s case, Very Left.

Courtesy of Newsbusters, MSNBC is airing a promo for President Obama’s forthcoming State of the Union. It features video from previous State of the Union speeches. The presidents you see and hear from are, in order, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.

Following the clips, you read these words: “America Always Believes in a Better Future.”

So who might be missing from this pantheon? Try Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, just for starters. Perhaps at MSNBC, those Republicans are viewed as an obstacle to a better future.

The slogan “Lean Forward” might be better understood as “Lean Left.” And in MSNBC’s case, Very Left.

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LIVE BLOG: Obama and the Rhetoric Question

So, the controversial part: Obama said that “at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized,” we should not “lay the blame . . . at the feet of those who happen to think different than we do.” Moreover, we should “make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”

He went on: “Bad things happen and we have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath. And the truth is none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped these shots from being fired or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind. . . . But what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other. That we cannot do.”

Then: “Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and points-scoring and pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle. The loss of these wonderful people should make everyone of us strive to be better. . . . And if . . . their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy. It did not. But rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud. ”

Was this a declaration that the massacre was not political? Sort of. And that’s good enough, because this was not a State of the Union address or a policy roll-out. At a service memorializing the deaths to which such a repulsive degree of politicization has already accrued, any overt political telegraphing  would be unwelcome. We need to remember, after all, it was never Barack Obama who played politics with this tragedy in the first place.

Beyond that, his words, and particularly his focus on nine-year-old Christina-Taylor Green’s appreciation for America, were laudable and affecting. It is now only left to his base to be sane, respectful, and honest.

So, the controversial part: Obama said that “at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized,” we should not “lay the blame . . . at the feet of those who happen to think different than we do.” Moreover, we should “make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”

He went on: “Bad things happen and we have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath. And the truth is none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped these shots from being fired or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind. . . . But what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other. That we cannot do.”

Then: “Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and points-scoring and pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle. The loss of these wonderful people should make everyone of us strive to be better. . . . And if . . . their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy. It did not. But rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud. ”

Was this a declaration that the massacre was not political? Sort of. And that’s good enough, because this was not a State of the Union address or a policy roll-out. At a service memorializing the deaths to which such a repulsive degree of politicization has already accrued, any overt political telegraphing  would be unwelcome. We need to remember, after all, it was never Barack Obama who played politics with this tragedy in the first place.

Beyond that, his words, and particularly his focus on nine-year-old Christina-Taylor Green’s appreciation for America, were laudable and affecting. It is now only left to his base to be sane, respectful, and honest.

Read Less




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