I cannot have been the only person who found President Obama’s State of the Union message and much of the indulgence of it, even by serious commentators, worrisome. The president was correct that “too many of our institutions have let us down.” He seemed not to recognize that first among them were the administration (especially the presidency), the Congress, and the Supreme Court — the speaker and the audience for the occasion (apart from the justices who boycotted because of Mr. Obama’s rudeness to them on a previous such occasion). Almost everyone distinguishable from and except for the people and the armed forces should be arraigned on this charge.
Indeed the president has not always concealed his disappointment in the people, not just those who cling to “guns or religion, or antipathy to people who are not like them,” but all who “had gotten a little soft.” It’s a little like the East German puppet Stalinist regime that “lost confidence in the people” in 1953, prompting Communist playwright Bertolt Brecht to ask whether they proposed to “elect another people.”
After such a debacle as the country has endured these last few years, only the president, the “head of the American people,” as FDR described him (self), can lead and bring the country through. This does not consist in this president’s preferred gambit of decrying the “mess” he inherited. (The federal deficit in 2007 was $161 billion, in 2008 $459 billion, and between $1.42 billion and $1.3 billion each year since and forecast to continue). The president’s late colleague Richard Holbrooke claimed never to have seen anything like “the mess we have inherited” — the same Richard Holbrooke who had seen and prominently assisted in creating the unutterable shambles handed by President Johnson to Richard Nixon, and the one handed by President Carter to Ronald Reagan.
In April 2009, President Obama famously said that “words must mean something,” as he announced his pursuit of a nuclear-disarmed world, the signal for intensified nuclear-proliferation efforts by North Korea and Iran. His words in the State of the Union seemed to have little meaning.
First, the matters I agreed with: By all means let us encourage multinational companies to repatriate jobs to the U.S., doubly so for high-tech start-ups in economically depressed areas. If it is true that almost all the states have raised educational standards, that is a great achievement, and Arne Duncan, the education secretary, does seem to be one of the administration’s brightest lights. “A new law that gives illegal immigrants a chance to earn their citizenship” is a good idea and could be a start in dealing with the immigration crisis. Here as elsewhere, a little specificity would be helpful. (“More boots on the ground” haven’t dried up illegal immigration; the recession has.) Opening 75 percent of offshore sites for oil and natural-gas drilling is a big step forward, though the president still clings to his old fixation on clean energy, which he still fancies a potential source of job creation. I agree with his proposal for an obligatory vote on federal nominees to office within 90 days, and with his desire for stronger conflict-of-interest rules for members of Congress.
Not so uplifting were the calls for more incentive money for schools while “keeping education costs down,” and the requirement for all students to graduate or stay in school to age 18. I have been a secondary-school teacher in this country and I doubt if any great progress can be made until the teachers’ unions who have held education levels hostage to their greed have been decertified, their benefit packages have been adjusted to conform to reduced official means, and there is more stability in American families, especially in African-American communities.
The president’s call for a “comprehensive plan to fight climate change” is nonsense, especially coming from the man who padded around the most absurd conference in history, the one on the environment in Copenhagen in 2009, trying to raise a pledge of $100 billion annually for underdeveloped countries, to salve the consciences of the West in favor of such moral pillars as Mugabe and Chávez. The president did not explain why we should fight climate change, particularly as it is only one centigrade degree in 30 years and has no relationship with carbon emissions or human conduct generally.