Two Cheers for Obama
Yes, I actually liked his State of the Union address.

President Obama at the State of the Union speech, February 12, 2013.


Conrad Black

As distinguished publisher and real-estate developer Mortimer Zuckerman pointed out in the Wall Street Journal on February 16, the president’s 45 incantations of the word “jobs” in the State of the Union address cannot disguise the proportions of the unemployment crisis in the country. Though Mr. Zuckerman overstated the comparability to the crisis of the Thirties (there were closer to 17 million than 13 million unemployed then, in a population of about 125 million and with no direct government relief for the jobless), he is right to stress the facts that 48 million people are now in the food-stamps program, 15 percent of the population and almost double the percentage that used food stamps in the period from 1970 to 2000; and that 11 million Americans are on Social Security for disabilities, half of them added to the rolls in the last four years, and more than twice the percentage of the work force than the same category of benefit-recipients of 20 years ago. (There are also 48 million Americans with a criminal record: an even more shocking figure, ignored, like almost every other aspect of the American justice system, which the president celebrated in this year’s address by quoting the sign that greeted him in Burma recently: “There is justice and law in the United States.” One should not count on it.)

While there are 6 million more jobs than at the trough of the current economic drought, there are also more than 6 million fewer than there were when it began, $7 trillion of deficit spending ago. The chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Alan Krueger, may be correct to claim that “the economy is going through a lot of healing,” referring to stock- and housing-market recoveries that have regained 85 percent of lost value. But Mort Zuckerman was closer to the truth when he wrote that the real unemployment number is 14.5 percent, not the 7.9 percent officially acknowledged, because the official figures ignore more than 8 million people who seek full-time work and are employed only part-time, 10 million people who have given up looking for work and have fallen out of the statistical base, and the seasonal nature of many recent hires.

The U.S. is only at an early stage of retrieving manufacturing jobs and reemphasizing employment that adds value, rather than the ever-growing number of lawyers, consultants, public-sector employees, and benefit recipients who are, whatever their merit in many individual cases, essentially a taxation on the productive aspects of the system. The country has just begun to reduce its addiction to the unaffordable service economy. There are now, according to the Senate Budget Committee, eleven states that have more welfare beneficiaries than employed people, including four of the seven most populous states: California, New York, Illinois, and Ohio. Counting food stamps, child support, and Medicaid, the average family below the poverty line receives $168 per day; even as the median income per family is about $50,000, or $137.13 per day. Welfare pays $30 an hour for a 40-hour week, and work $25 per hour.

The implications of these numbers recall one of the many gaffes in the late Romney campaign, but they belie the president’s and Mr. Krueger’s sunny words. Still, the president’s speech was not antagonistic, divisive, or devoid of imagination. He even spoke of a desire to “improve the voting experience in America.” That is a commendable objective, one that will require better candidates than the U.S. has had for its highest offices since the Reagan era. And to remind us of what can be done, in this Presidents’ Day week, I trot out one of my old pet ideas (like naming a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier after Martin Luther King): Let us have Presidents’ Day one week earlier and declare that it covers from January 30 to February 22, and thus embraces Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, as well as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln (and, incidentally, William H. Harrison). Those were surely the country’s four greatest presidents; there are great presidents out there, in the land of Joe the Plumber; and there is little wrong with the country that would not be ameliorated if one were just found and elevated. In the meantime, we should take a little comfort from the relatively reasonable words of the only president the country has now.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of FreedomRichard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and the recently published A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at [email protected].