The president’s State of the Union address was less partisan than had been expected, but not any more worthy for it. President Obama often descended into Clintonian minutiae in a speech that lacked elegance and, really, any interest.
To no one’s surprise, he emphasized two economic proposals: extending unemployment benefits and raising the minimum wage for some federal contractors, the latter as prelude to raising the minimum wage across the board. The recession has been over for five years, but those two measures are at the heart of the president’s economic agenda. The prominence of those two proposals amounts to a remarkable act of self-incrimination on the president’s part — the recession is long gone, and after the entirety of his first term, his reelection, and a quarter of his second term, Barack Obama is still mired in the same economic trouble: Too many Americans are out of work. This is not news. It is as though there were a flood a half-decade ago and he’s hit upon the idea of requisitioning some mops and buckets. President Obama can protest that he inherited an economic mess, but he campaigned – twice — to be the man responsible for it. For five years, he has been looking for somebody to blame, and last night was no exception. He blamed “stale political debates” — otherwise known as democracy — for the nation’s troubles, and pledged to act in an antidemocratic, unilateral manner when possible. No, he did not put it quite like that, but that is the plain meaning of what he proposes: to aggrandize the power of the presidency over the people’s representatives in the House and the Senate.
To what end?
The president says — although he downplayed it last night in favor of the theme of opportunity — that he intends to make economic “inequality” the great theme of his second term. This is mainly a rhetorical exercise. President Obama gives no evidence of being a deep economic thinker, but he is not so economically illiterate as to believe that America’s middle class and working poor are struggling because our billionaires are thriving. It is not the case that our poor are poor because our rich are rich, nor vice versa. It is for this reason that all of this talk of “inequality” should worry Americans across the income spectrum. It is the easiest thing in the world to reduce statistical income inequality by making the very well off somewhat worse off—while doing nothing to improve the condition of those in the middle and at the bottom. The poor are not poor because their employers are too rich. They are poor because they have no employers: In the lowest-earning households, 68.2 percent of the people are unemployed.
If by “opportunity” the president means the opportunity for gainful employment, we of course share the sentiment. But last night he offered nothing new on the subject, and certainly nothing that would cause any sensible person to reconsider he lamentable record on the issue of job opportunities.
There being few jobs and still fewer good jobs, the president seeks to make unemployment and minimum-wage work more comfortable. The president’s proposal to raise the minimum wage for some federal contract workers is telling. There is no recession for government workers, even at the hourly level: Federal hourly workers earn an average of $53,043 per year — more than the median household income in the United States. President Obama already has secured a raise for them. But the federal government also contracts for services and, because government contractors do not have the power to lay taxes upon the citizenry, they operate in something more closely resembling economic reality. Even so, contractors’ workers in food service, traditionally among the lowest-paid, already make on average 31 percent more than the federal minimum wage. In the Obama economy, it’s great to work for the government — and if you’re looking for a position in the private sector, we have some unemployment benefits for you, and perhaps a more generous food-stamp allowance. But a job? Good luck.
The strange thing is that the president seems to know that high taxes and heavy regulation are a problem for economic growth, which is why in every State of the Union speech he’s ever given, he has called for exemptions to those taxes and regulations — for businesses and industries that are in the Democrats’ good graces. This year’s speech was no different, with a promise to reduce regulations and taxes on businesses that do as the president wishes them to do. He promised to cut through red tape holding back “key projects,” which apparently do not include such things as oil pipelines or many kinds of electricity-generating plants. Having secured his $787 billion for “shovel-ready” projects some years back, the president is still talking about building roads.
At least he passed that through Congress. Last night, he declared, “America does not stand still, and neither will I.” Congresses are of course a millstone around the neck of presidential ambitions: That is what they are there for. Yes, Barack Obama was elected — so was every member of Congress. Perhaps Barack Obama does not like it this way, but the people made their decision and went with divided government. For the president to behave as though Congress’s exercising its responsibility under the separation of powers is somehow illegitimate is fundamentally at odds with our constitutional order.
All these many years after that fine, soaring talk about hope and change, here we are: Barack Obama still going on inanely about the magical clean-energy economy that exists only in his mind, millions upon millions out of the work force, wages stagnant for those working, and a president who talks as though he could get America moving again if only he could get those inconvenient democratic encumbrances — Congress, the Constitution — safely out of the way. He has given better speeches, but the American people seem to be in the process of beginning to realize that there is rather more to the presidency than oratory.