State of the Union: Instant Reactions
The president’s constitutional mandate to from “time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union” has become a prime time spectacle.
TAC asked several of our contributors to comment on Barack Obama’s 2011 iteration of the annual political ritual.
Click to jump to any of the contributors:
W. James Antle III
Stylistically, Barack Obama struck exactly the right tone in his State of the Union address. Just like in his Tucson remarks, he tried to appear “post-partisan.” He appeared to offer Republicans an olive branch while reassuring his Democratic base that he wasn’t going to let them gut the federal government.
Millions of Americans voted for Obama because he seemed fair, reasonable, and constructive. Many of them, particularly the independents, turned against him because as president he turned out to be ideological, thin-skinned, and fiscally irresponsible. Last night, he tried to return to campaign form. Obama sought especially to rebut the idea that he was reckless with taxpayer dollars.
Unfortunately, the substance of Obama’s remarks was unequal to his rhetoric. His five-year spending freeze is a comical farce. Like similar Republican proposals, it exempts the biggest categories of federal spending and relies on future Congresses to maintain their budget caps for longer than we can realistically expect of Capitol Hill creatures. Even worse than the major GOP alternatives, it freezes spending at the 2009-10 elevated levels, essentially locking in Obama’s 84 percent discretionary spending increase and making it the baseline for future federal budgets.
Obama deserves some credit for tacitly admitting his freeze and ban on earmarks — another inconsequential gesture popular among Republicans — were just gimmickry. But the president also deserves scorn for effectively punting on the looming entitlements crisis. Unlike Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman who delivered the Republican response, Obama has no plan for dealing with entitlements. Unlike Tom Coburn, the conservative Republican senator from Oklahoma, Obama is unwilling to endorse his own deficit-reduction commission’s findings or contemplate meaningful cuts in the defense budget.
Ryan was smart and effective in his response to the president. He acknowledged two important facts: that the Republicans contributed mightily to the country’s impending fiscal disaster and that the Democrats’ “solutions” have largely made these problems worse. But Ryan frequently appeared to promise voters there could be large cuts in government spending without anyone doing without anything they demand of government — a tension Obama stands ready to exploit.
Overall, the State of the Union is about what you would expect it to be with a president who has been at best a marginal improvement over the neocons on foreign policy and noticeably worse on most everything else.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.
The State of the Union address has long since become “hip boot” time. Shortly after the speech finished, the CNN webpage showed a large photo of Obama giving the speech along with a brief outtake: “CNN BREAKING NEWS: ‘What Comes of This Moment is Up to Us.’” I prefer the motto of the 1960s-era druggies: “Wherever you go, there you are.” At least the potheads didn’t think their maxim was profound or breaking news.
Obama made some reasonable comments about the need to cut spending–at the same time he repeated his hokum about “investing in education,” green energy, magical infrastructure spending, etc. He recited the usual laundry list–Iran, North Korea, et. al.–of locations waiting for a pretext for the next American war. I remember when Bill Clinton used a State of the Union address to announce that “the era of Big Government is over.” The bootlicking TV pundits loved that line– and they also cheered Clinton’s continual championing of new government interventions.
Obama talked about this as America’s “Sputnik moment.” But the real “Sputnik moment” country needs is an awakening to the perils of Weasel Central. Watching Obama walk down the aisle last night with so many the members of Congress desperate to be seen on television touching Obama’s sleeve or catching his eyes: what reasonable, sober person would trust such a pathetic bunch of grovelers?
James Bovard is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy.
Michael Brendan Dougherty
On foreign policy, Obama was once again murky on our goals in Afghanistan. He did not reiterate a 2011 end-date for operations in Iraq. Very little to praise here.
On the economy Obama gets a C+. In some ways, we should acknowledge how far we have come. In 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt was allowed to write an op-ed that inveighed against machines that made labor more efficient. Tonight Obama touted the benefits of technology, of having plants that can do with 100 people and machines what could only have been done by a 1000 laborers a generation ago.
But there was much hypocrisy too. Obama announced, “Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again,” then noted that this “recovery” had yielded little in the way of jobs. Corporate profits and stock jumps are leading indicators for sure.
But Obama also spent part of his speech talking about “investing” in “biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology.” With people like G.E. CEO Jeff Immelt heading Obama’s economic advisory team, this means more subsidies for uncompetitive and uneconomical corporate endeavors, but also profit margins and rising stock prices. It seems we have a real recovery, and a fake recovery working in tandem.
All this said, Obama was right to call for a reduction in corporate tax-rates and a simplification of the tax code.
Obama spent much of his speech on education, as Democrats are wont to do. Fortunately people are catching on to the fact that our higher education system is a finance and subsidy bubble waiting to pop.
Reorganizing the government is a good thing to do, though it makes mischief possible. I hope Republicans work with him on this before 2012 electoral politics consume them.
Some other observations. Praising the Korean idea of teachers as “nation-builders” in insidious and creepy. Worst Congressional moment was the applause for “fixing” the Obamacare-caused 1099 fiasco for small businesses. The provision was inserted intentionally to rig the score from the Congressional Budget Office. Contra Obama, our Defense Secretary has not offered to cut his own budget, only to find $100 billion in waste that he wants to spend elsewhere.
Michael Brendan Dougherty is a TAC contributing editor and a 2009-10 Phillips Journalism Fellow.
Having never watched a State of the Union address before, the theatrical aspect of the audience popping up and down like a chorus in a Greek tragedy or possibly the Supreme Soviet responding to Uncle Joe Stalin’s announcement of the results of the latest five year plan provided a bit of unexpected entertainment. I also liked the “real people” seeded in the audience to provide “real life stories” to sustain the narrative. The president’s speech basically said that things have been bad but are improving and will get better if we throw more money at various issues. It was slick and sounded nice but didn’t have much substance.
Above all, Obama reminded me of just how clueless Washington is about what is happening in this country. The past five years have gutted the lower middle class with people unemployed or working at low wage jobs without benefits. The good jobs are not coming back even if some guy in Ohio is building solar energy panels. “Become a teacher” says Barack. My daughter did that and has been working as a receptionist for the past two years because America’s school districts are broke and are not hiring. Obamacare is a success even if it can be tweaked, he boasts, but it was so back loaded that I do not know a single person who has benefited from it while the capitulation to the insurance companies has meant that rates have skyrocketed this year for many people who do have coverage. I heard just last week how a good friend of mine in Texas died essentially because he developed a condition where he could not get insurance. The system is completely broken if it is measured by providing affordable care to people.
Compared to Obama, the Republican rebuttal was a breath of fresh air, describing just how bad the economic crisis is. We are indeed close to the edge of the cliff and going over. But demands for small and accountable government are just words until someone actually exhibits the leadership to do something and I wish I had heard those words when the Republicans were in control back in 2006 because, to be fair, the rot started with them.
On foreign policy, Obama claimed violence is down in Iraq (it’s actually going the other way), that we are winning in Afghanistan (false), that our soldiers are coming home (his generals are saying the opposite), and that we are pledged to eradicate al-Qaeda worldwide. We’ve been trying that for ten years without any real success, so it means the long war will continue and continue and continue. There was no understanding from either party that the enormous cost of war and empire is at the heart of our malaise, a huge and unsustainable burden on every American. They talk about cutting social security when it is the Pentagon that should be chopped by 50% or more. In retrospect, I would have had a better evening settling down with a glass of Pinot Noir and a book. I would have liked to hear Michele Bachmann, but couldn’t find a channel that was televising her response.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA Officer, is the Executive Director of the Council for the National Interest.
Contrary to the impression that one might have received from listening to the reaction to Obama’s State of the Union provided by Fox News experts and the obligatory GOP grumblings of Rich Lowry, the speech was in my view a brilliant performance. Almost all the substance was vintage Obama, for example, when he defended his health care plan, called for amnestying “undocumented” youth who may grow up to be “scientists working in our laboratories,” and proposed oodles of stimulus money for those creating safe and clean energy. Occasionally Obama tried to split the difference with the opposition, for example over tax policy and the military. He praised the opening of the military to gays and even featured a plainly gay couple in uniform among his handpicked audience. But he also urged left-wing universities to open their door to ROTC, now that the issue of gays in the armed forces had been settled by congressional act.
But Obama’s rhetoric about America the exceptional could have come out of the Wall Street Journal or from the collected speeches of Sarah Palin. The were so many references in a fifty-minute speech to American exceptionalism and to people all over the world yearning for our democratic values that today’s New York Post gave high grades to Obama for his oratory. The US was no longer seen as a country that is like other ones: “America is exceptional now even in Obama’s eyes.” This may have been the real strength of the speech and a rhetorical trick that Obama picked up from Bill Clinton. It was Clinton who stole the slogan “family values” featured by the GOP and applied it to his own social policies. Obama may be doing the same thing with American exceptionalism. It will no longer be used to justify a neocon foreign policy but will be pulled out to defend government spending on “doing great things.” More than one party can make the same noise.
Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College.
I attended a book event for Ronald Reagan Jr. in Washington, DC, where he thanked his bother Michael for bashing his new memoir about their father. “It really helped increase the sales of my book,” Ron quipped. Indeed, there is no such thing as bad publicity, or as Oscar Wilde put it, “The only thing worse thanbeing talked about is not being talked about.”
So if I was responsible for making policy in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Beirut, Cairo or Riyadh, I would be somewhat concerned after President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address (SOTUA) where neither Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt or Saudi Arabia were mentioned in one sentence. The omission was intriguing since on the same day Obama was addressing Congress, the front pages of The New York Times and other “elite” newspapers carried reports about the election of a pro-Hizbollah Prime Minister in Lebanon, of political unrest and anti-government violence in Egypt, and of new revelations about the failed efforts to reach Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
If you skim through presidential SOTUAs since World War II – and especially since the 1967 and 1973 Middle East wars – the issue of U.S. policy in the region and its support for Israel and other American allies, including the effort to achieve Arab-Israeli peace have featured prominently in most of these addresses. And that was not surprising. Through the many presidential Cold War “doctrines” (Truman; Eisenhauer; Carter), terrorist attacks, oil embargoes, military interventions, and “peace processes,” the Middle East and its major players were perceived to be central to U.S. strategic and economic interests. In fact, under President George W. Bush, U.S. Mideast policy seemed to dominate his SOTUAs. And let us not forget the almost obligatory reiteration of American support for Israel by most U.S. Presidents through the years.
Obama briefly mentioned Iraq in his address – to mark the withdrawal of U.S. troops from there with no expression of support for the Iraqi government. And he did praise the pro-democracy protestors in Tunisia but without integrating these comments into a grand American narrative of Democracy Promotion in the Middle East.
So what are we to make of the short shrifting of the Mideast by Obama? Some would argue that the focus of the address was on economic policies and not only foreign policy. After all, not even America’s allies in Europe were mentioned. But in fact, the main theme of the SOTUA (“The Sputnik Moment”) was global – not domestic: The U.S. needs to restructure its economy, reform education, become more innovative, etc. in order to enhance its competitive edge vis-à-vis China, India, Korea and the other Asian emerging markets. In a way, Obama seems to be responding the new geostrategic and geo-economic realities, in which U.S. has no choice but to start reducing its costly commitments in the Middle East, including the support for Arab dictators and autocrats and the futile peace processing, and start investing its time and effort in strengthening its ties with the nations and economies of the Pacific Rim, with the winners of the 21st century.
Leon Hadar is a research fellow at the Cato Institute.
For all the talk of the Tea Party being “too extreme” it was amusing the degree to which the President felt it necessary to address and accommodate, at least rhetorically, widespread popular concern over spending and debt. These issues have been represented as of late almost exclusively by the Tea Party and Republicans who now dance to their tune. It has certainly not been Democratic territory, yet this Democratic president, post mid-term election, felt the need to address it. The lesson for the Tea Party? Stay “extreme.”
The rest of the speech-though well articulated per Obama’s characteristic skill-was the usual, bizarre spectacle on the President promising more massive spending, or “investment,” coupled with the pretense that he is actually serious about addressing spending and debt. As if throwing federal dollars at education has done anything to improve American students’ performance to date, Obama promised more of the same meddling, including promoting the latest federal education scheme “Race to the Top.” The President said that this program would replace “No Child Left Behind,” a program which House Majority Leader John Boehner once called his “proudest legislative achievement.” Sitting to Obama’s left, Boehner did not clap upon learning this new Democrat big government education program would replace the big government Republican one the congressman once favored so heavily.
On foreign policy, Obama promised an end to wars while touting a never-ending relationship with Iraq and Afghanistan, meaning the United States will have a significant presence in that part of the world as long and as large as even John McCain or Lindsey Graham desire. “Ending” wars apparently means perpetual nation-building, as Obama explained in so many words.
The most politically significant part of last night, however, was probably the Republican rebuttal, which focused almost exclusively on fiscal issues and featured a distinctive pitch for “limited government.” Some have accused Ryan for being too vague, but he was no less vague than years’ past Republican language promoting war and the threat of “Islamofascism,” and the congressman’s rebuttal was far removed from any of that Bush-era nonsense. The focus on the mainstream Right has shifted almost entirely from foreign policy to domestic spending and government largesse. This is a healthy development and certainly more conservative than anything the GOP has stood for in a decade. Hopefully Ryan’s rebuttal reflects an ongoing trend.
Jack Hunter contributes regularly to @TAC and TAC-TV.
As a child, I was fascinated by the fact that the State of the Union was broadcast on every major network, and found changing the channel every minute was the only way to stay awake during the speech. My parents were less amused and demanded the remote control.
Even for mature audiences, it’s hard to imagine how this annual ritual could become any more tedious, with its combination of frothy rhetoric interspersed with recognition of selected citizens. More policy substance would not make for good prime time television. But an honest reckoning of the accounts is probably what the American framers had in mind when they made the State of the Union a constitutional requirement — a chief executive reporting to his board of trustees. Thus for over a century, presidents delivered this report in writing. Today they lead the great “American family” (to use the president’s words) in something resembling a Cub Scout pack meeting.
I watched the speech in a packed watering hole a few blocks from the Capitol, where every television was tuned to MSNBC. The patrons there, likely a combination of Beltway hangers-on of one sort or another, were unmoved by either the abstract oratory or merit badges Scoutmaster Obama was handing out. Many sat quietly and read the Twitter feed on their phones; as more than one tweet said, “Watching Twitter is more fun than watching the actual SOTU.” By far the biggest cheer was for the president’s celebration of the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” After Obama finished, Chris Matthews told the unenthused viewers what a success the speech had been.
When Rep. Paul Ryan began his reply, few listened. A few Republicans huddled in one corner and tried to lip read over the din of the crowded bar, but it was useless. The crowd didn’t want to be scolded by a den mother about spending too much. Like most children of our age, Americans only want to hear that they are exceptional, and that there is nothing quite like them. In his conclusion, Ryan at least complied with this demand–if anyone heard him.
Lewis McCrary is senior editor of The American Conservative.
Steve Walt had it exactly right earlier on Tuesday:
But what will the speech accomplish? It’s not going to tame House Republicans, or make obstructionist Senators more cooperative. Neither the Tea Party nor Fox/News (a wholly owned subsidiary of the GOP) is going to be won over by the president’s words, no matter how eloquent he is or how effectively he triangulates. His oratory won’t alter the calculations or conduct of the Taliban, sway the governments of Iran, or China, or turn Hamid Karzai into a popular and effective leader. And even in the wake of the Tucson shooting, I doubt that eloquent pleas for greater bipartisanship and a more civil discourse will end the vitriol on talk radio and in the blogosphere.
So I stuck with my plans to go out to a club tonight, but I caught large parts of the speech at the bar next door. After seeing the usual claptrap about creating the jobs of the future, I was actually pretty pleased: Obama spoke of “tens of billions” in Pentagon cuts and stuck to his Afghanistan timetable. He still knows how to reach the silent majority.
Compare this to Paul Ryan, who repeated the mantras of slashing Social Security and Medicare but not defense, all in the name of “American exceptionalism” of course. That the consummate attention whore Michele Bachmann could get a rival audience for her substantively identical “tea party response” tells us all we need to know about how dysfunctional the Republicans remain.
I could not help but watch with the context of the potentially world-historic events in Tunisia and Egypt in mind. Indeed, insofar as the actual state of our Union is concerned, the following Daily Show dialogue from the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall cannot be repeated often enough:
Jon Stewart: Could something like this happen again?
John Oliver: No Jon, this was a completely unique set of circumstances, a perfect storm unlikely to be repeated. Their economy was in tatters, looking abroad they had very few real friends left in the world. But even those would have amounted to very little were it not for their disastrous decision to invade and occupy Afghanistan.
Stewart: But the Soviet Union at that time had an inexperienced, charismatic leader, who promised change and reform . . .
Oliver: He even won the Nobel Peace Prize.
If the events in the Arab world turn out to be half as important as they could be, the State Of The Union definitely passed the extremely low bar of not being the costume ball before the fall of Archangel. But we must not forget that that is exactly what it would have been if given by a President McCain.
Jack Ross is a regular contributor to PostRight.
Let’s face it, listening for war-related issues in recent State of the Union Addresses, particularly under President Obama, is akin to spotting your favorite car in an early 20th Century Grand Prix race. Just as fleeting, though not nearly as exhilarating.
This year’s speech was no different. Obama came at the war in Afghanistan warily and almost seemed relieved when he got out quickly and shifted to familiar (yet rhetorically empty) tough talk on Pakistan (a total of two lines). Sadly, the nation still has some 100,000 soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan, yet one could have easily missed Obama’s tepid update if not paying strict attention. And what he did say was immediately forgettable. Anyone who has been paying attention even casually to Afghanistan in recent weeks and months would have recognized these lines as being especially lame:
In Afghanistan, our troops have taken Taliban strongholds and trained Afghan Security Forces. Our purpose is clear — by preventing the Taliban from reestablishing a stranglehold over the Afghan people, we will deny al Qaeda the safe-haven that served as a launching pad for 9/11…
There will be tough fighting ahead, and the Afghan government will need to deliver better governance. But we are strengthening the capacity of the Afghan people and building an enduring partnership with them.
At one point, Obama engages in what could only be described as open deception:
Thanks to our heroic troops and civilians, fewer Afghans are under the control of the insurgency
That he can make this charge with the military brass watching stoically a few feet ahead took serious chutzpah! The Wall Street Journal just reported last month that it had access to secret UN maps indicating that the Taliban has actually gained more control in the last year, and nearly every credible report from on the ground and among regional experts back that up. But swoosh! Obama is off again, and we don’t quite have the time to chew that over before he gets to the one truly interesting line within the one minute he spared on the war Tuesday night:
This year, we will work with nearly 50 countries to begin a transition to an Afghan lead. And this July, we will begin to bring our troops home.
This is notable because no one thought the administration was going to stick to its guns on the July 2011 timeline for beginning withdrawal — especially considering how bad things are going, and the fact that military leaders have been grumbling about the timeline, announced by Obama last January, for months. McClatchy News even talked about the White House “walking away” from that date in November.
But again, Obama’s reference was but one line – he conveniently left out any hint of how many troops could come home (we shouldn’t be surprised if it ends up being some small, symbolic withdrawal gesture). What’s clear is he is not withdrawing troops because he thinks the U.S is winning in Afghanistan – if he did, he wouldn’t have skipped over such news so quickly.
Easily the most gratuitous foreign policy line of the night: tonight we can say that American leadership has been renewed and America’s standing has been restored.
Two words: Who says? This waste of breath could have easily been spent talking about our two million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans – curbing the alarming rise in suicides, helping them get jobs – but sadly, this didn’t come up at all.
Bottom line: Amid all the talk about taking “responsibility for our deficit,” promoting smart investment, innovation and “winning the future,” the now-estimated $5 trillion war that has been a reality (and a fiscal albatross) for the last ten years was given, again, very short shrift in the president’s speech last night.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.
Members of the corporate political duopoly switched seats and sat next to each other making it even harder to tell the corporate welfare party from the crony capitalist party. Sadly, the spokespersons for both failed to learn the lessons of history and as a result the American economy will continue to falter with U.S. militarism continuing to expand.
Listening to the saccharin rhetoric of President Obama one would think the nation’s economy was flourishing and the military was winning wars. The truth, that the economy is still in collapse and the military is stuck in war quagmires all piling up record debt, was hard to see through his veil of words.
Debt, the bi-partisan duopoly mistaken priority, was the problem the president acknowledged offering two McCain campaign promises – no more earmarks which make up less than 1% of the federal budget; and a partial budget freeze, excluding national security. When McCain proposed a freeze during the campaign Obama mocked it saying a “spending freeze is a hatchet, and we do need a scalpel.” Gimmicks, not solutions.
In fact the economy continues to be in crisis with high levels of unemployment, record foreclosures and record poverty. The best lesson for how to get out of the economic mess of today comes from the depression. It is important to look at the facts rather than the myths. The pre-WWII New Deal era from 1933-1940, even if you include the recession of 1937-38, saw the single biggest drop in the unemployment rate in U.S. history. According to the census, the unemployment rate in 1933 was 24.7% by 1940 unemployment had dropped to 14.5%. This was accomplished my massive federal spending focused on job creation.
Obama came into an economic crisis and wasted the opportunity by re-enforcing concentrated corporatism rather than challenging it, investing in Wall Street rather than creating jobs, re-enforcing insurance-dominated health care and failing to face up to uncontrolled spending for the military industrial complex. From last night’s speech, we can expect more of the same and a floundering economy as a result.
But, the Republicans were even more out of touch with the lessons of history and the needs of the day. A second economic downturn officially began in May 1937 when FDR responded to deficit hawks and slashed spending programs to balance the budget. These premature spending cuts caused another severe recession. Cutting government spending brought unemployment back up to 19% in 1938 from 14% in 1937. The recession ended after 13 months in June 1938 when FDR reversed course restarting economic growth, by the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the unemployment rate was down to 9.7%
Even more absurd are calls to cutback Social Security and Medicare. These areas of spending have their own lines of funding from payroll taxes and therefore do not affect the deficit. They need small changes to continue to make them self-supporting, but they have been self-supporting for decades prior to this recession. Breaking this contract with Americans, making the elderly poorer and unable to spend, is no way to stimulate the economy.
Neither the crony capitalist nor corporate welfare party are facing up to the cuts needed in the largest area of discretionary spending, the military. Obama has created record DoD budgets, record intelligence budgets and record arms sales. Those who profit from weapons and war have done well in the Obama economy. The cuts being talked about by outgoing Secretary Gates are a miniscule fraction of what is needed.
Unlike the era of FDR, war will not get the economy moving. The U.S. has been engaged in the longest war in our history in Afghanistan, still has tens of thousands of troops and mercenaries in Iraq and is expanding the war in Pakistan. Wars are not creating the kind of WW II war economy as the methods of war have changed. At a cost of $1 million borrowed dollars per troop per year in Afghanistan the war is a drain on the economy not a stimulus.
Spending on military certainly creates jobs, just not many compared to other spending or tax cuts. Spending $1 billion on the military creates 8,555 jobs while spending the same amount on mass transit would create 19,795 and on education 17,687. Even spending on tax cuts, not a great form of stimulus, is more efficient than the military, creating 10,779 jobs. Health care and infrastructure spending create about 12,800 jobs. The U.S. needs WWII in reverse, a rapid switch from a military-dominated economy to a civilian-dominated economy.
There are some signs of recovery finally, but there are also signs of frailty. At best the economy will recover hesitantly, but another collapse is also possible. The failure to heed the lessons of history increases the chances of the economy faltering rather than growing, and with that the debt will grow as well. This not a time for sacchrin and gimmicks. It is time to face reality and institute paradigm shifting change. It is time for a democratized economy that benefits all of us and to end an economy designed for concentrated corporate interests that benefit few.