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.
Nor is the president’s invocation of the workfare programs of the New Deal or President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System plausible. He has not proposed putting the able-bodied unemployed to work in conservation or infrastructure projects, and it is hard to see this otherwise than as a shabby effort to repackage his catastrophic (gravediggers’) shovel-ready $800 billion stimulus plan (exposed as a scam in a recently revealed memo from former Treasury secretary Larry Summers) by attracting to it some of the prestige of the TVA, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and other New Deal successes such as the Lincoln Tunnel and the Triborough Bridge.
Equally far-fetched was the promise of $10 billion of savings in regulations over the next five years, and the “new rules [that will] restore what should be any financial system’s core purpose [of] getting funding to entrepreneurs with the best ideas and getting loans to responsible families” — in furtherance of which, banks will make a “living will” explaining how they will repay that debt. This is a frightening fairy tale.
Though he did inherit a mismanaged, undermanned operation in Afghanistan, and does deserve credit for the command decisions that got rid of Osama bin Laden, the president knows that it is not true that the U.S. is withdrawing in Afghanistan from a “position of strength.” It is probably time to go, but no one should be under any illusions about how strong our position is. His claim of credit for getting rid of Qaddafi, when he had to be dragged by the ear by the French to do anything — like his assertion that Syria’s Assad, with whom he has effectively sided through most of his civil war, “will discover that human dignity cannot be denied” —- had me reaching for the sick bag. And I almost needed defibrillation, if not the clergy, over his assertion that “through the power of our diplomacy, [the] world . . . now stands as one” in imposing “crippling sanctions” on Iran. In fact, he beseeched the Congress to soften those sanctions, which should have been imposed three years ago when he was playing footsie with the theocratic butchers in Tehran as they stole their election.
No one would begrudge the president trying to spin his record positively, but some of his falsehoods were potentially dangerous. He implicitly tried to excuse government from “the collapse of the house of cards in 2008,” which he blamed entirely on “huge,” “wrong,” and “irresponsible . . . bets and bonuses with other people’s money” in the private sector. The U.S. government, and mainly the Democrats, gave America the trillions of dollars of non-commercial mortgages, the unsustainable bank-borrowing ratios, the mark-to-market rules that assured a short-sellers’ paradise, and a fraudulent housing bubble in the name of family home ownership that was really an enrichment of real-estate speculators and the building trades. Clinton, Rubin, and Greenspan have more to answer for than Sandy Weill, or even the president’s generous supporters at Goldman Sachs, for all their outrages.
The president last week claimed the creation of 3 million jobs in 22 months, but said little of the previous loss of 8 million jobs. His claim to have reduced the deficit by $2 trillion is a pie-in-the-sky ten-year guess that produces only a 15 percent reduction in projected deficits.
The presentation of the consumers’ watchdog and his plan for a financial-crimes unit to crack down on risky mortgages was nightmarish. The last thing the twilight zone of the neo-fascist American prosecutocracy and bloated custodial system needs or should receive is a new reign of terror of proscriptions in the middle echelons of the financial industry.
Inevitably, the steroid-fed canard of Warren Buffett’s taxes raised its furry, bespectacled head in the president’s remarks. “Do we want to keep tax cuts for the wealthiest or do we want to keep our investments in everything else, like education, medical resources, a strong military, and care for our veterans? Because, if we are serious about paying down the deficit, we can’t do both.”
At a 30 percent tax rate, Buffett’s real taxes, on his real income, including reasonably imputable capital gains and the distribution through equity accounting of federal corporate tax, would increase from their actual 29.5 percent by about $7.5 million, a trivial fraction of what he will gain as a railway owner from the president’s irresponsible cancellation of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast.
Every reduction of such taxes, under Harding, Coolidge, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan, raised the percentage of GDP paid by the wealthiest in their taxes. And the idea that the quantum involved here would have any relevance to the education, medical research, or military budgets is a monstrous fiction. So is his claim that his health-care program relies on a reformed private market.
It is a bit rich for a president so thirsty for more authoritarian and meddlesome government to claim, as he did, to agree with Lincoln that government should only do what the people cannot do better for themselves. “Anyone who tells you that America is in decline, or that our influence has declined, doesn’t know what they are talking about.” The end came: If the whole population is in agreement, and behaves with teamwork, “the state of the Union will always be strong.” Not with this coach, or this playbook. Mitch Daniels’s response for the Republicans was excellent; his party should draft him or Jeb Bush to spare the nation four more years of what is becoming a variant of the Big Lie.