Presidential Theater

by Mitch Pearlstein

Right at the very end of President Obama’s State of the Union address, when he started talking about “feet planted firmly on the ground,” I thought he might break out into at least a recitation of the “Soliloquy” from Carousel. And no, I’m not being the least bit disrespectful by noting this, as never has there been a showstopper, at least by my footlights, as terrific as Billy Bigelow’s. If only Rodgers and Hammerstein (especially Oscar in this instance) had a few weeks to work with Obama in New Haven.

Which is not to say it was a bad speech as big speeches go, given the politically constraining conditions itemized by everyone both before and afterwards. And as a former speechwriter myself, I tend to be respectful of States of the Union, inaugural addresses, and the like. Professional courtesy and all.

Still, and leaving some of the higher priced issues to others, let me cite a couple of thing that, if I had written them, might not constitute my most sage and accurate moments.

What’s with this perpetual charge from the left that women make only 77 cents for every dollar men make? If this were actually true when it came to “equal pay for equal work” (Obama’s allusion only a few words or sentences later), then clearly a lot of employers out there are brazenly breaking a lot of laws. Where are all those deputized federal regulators when we really need them? For what 77 and 100 might actually mean, I suggest the White House track down an essay or two by Kay Hymowitz and other writers who, over many years now, have explained why using them in the way they were employed last night was cheap.

Then there is the matter of industrial innovation. The United States will continue innovating with the best of them, but we might not remain the very best of them as long as American students continue trailing large swaths of the world in math and science. A nation’s capacity for innovation is tied directly to the math and science knowledge of its workers, meaning the best such equipped workers increasingly are showing up in other countries. The president said pleasing things about high-school graduation rates. It would have been ultimately helpful, if painful, if he also had pointed to the fact that our students are losing ground vis à vis their foreign competitors. (Then, again, do I really want the federal government even more deeply involved in public schools? Forget the whole thing.)

And finally, the real blockage holding back minority college enrollments is not high tuition rates as much as poor K-12 performances. If a kid is poor, scholarships and grants generally can somehow be found. But it’s routinely uncanny: The number of minority students entering four-year colleges and universities in September just about matches the number of minority students coming out of high school the previous spring who took the right courses and are equipped to do college work. On this occasion, don’t follow the money.

— Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis. His newest book (tentatively titled) Broken Bonds: What Family Fragmentation Means for America’s Future, is expected to be published by Rowman & Littlefield this summer. 

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