Politics & Policy

The Disastrous SOTU

A groaning farrago of clichés and unlikely undertakings.

President Obama’s State of the Union address and the Republican and Tea Party responses to it were a dismal occasion. From the terminal platitude that all are “part of the American family,” to the likelihood that a girl in Tucson may “have dreams like the rest of us,” which “is what sets us apart as a nation,” it was a groaning farrago of clichés and unlikely undertakings, followed by replies that had been written before the contents of the president’s address were known and had almost nothing to do with what he said. I do not believe that Mr. Obama thinks the United States is the only nation on earth where young people in one region of the country are likely to have similar ambitions to those in other sections of the country. “We measure our progress by the success of our people.” And that progress is partly “thanks to tax cuts we passed,” referring to the Bush tax cuts whose continuation Mr. Obama fought to the last ditch. The president fantasized that “throughout history, our government has provided cutting-edge scientists with the support that they need.” It has done nothing of the kind, apart from some World War II military activities. Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers, the only inventors the president actually named, did not receive one cent from any government, any more than NASA “created millions of new jobs.”


Claiming the need to “raise expectations for every child,” like promises to “get rid of loopholes” in the tax system, and the promise to “find a bipartisan solution to strengthening Social Security,” while we “make sure we aren’t buried under a mountain of debt,” should be an impeachable offense, as a high misdemeanor, both substantively and stylistically. The speech was largely a tired porridge of the president’s old, time-warped pastiche of leftist postures from his university years. Millionaires had to “give up their tax break.” (They don’t have one.) Millions of clean jobs were out there somewhere. (They aren’t.) And although the president’s imperishable green delusion was down to a commendation of two men who founded a solar-shingle business in vacant government storage space, there was not a word about increasing domestic oil production or transferring much oil use to plentiful natural gas.


The president’s listless delivery and oppressive vagueness robbed of any credibility his jaunty promises of “rebuilding America.” “Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in roads and railways . . . [so] we will put more Americans to work repairing crumbling roads and bridges.” (The last time there were intimations of “shovel-ready projects,” all that was shovelable was the horse manure of roseate predictions that accompanied a trillion dollars of borrowed and ineffective stimulus.) The president promised that in 25 years, 80 percent of Americans will have access to high-speed rail; and that he would “in five years make it possible to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless to 98 percent of Americans.” The tepid response of even his own followers did not stoke up much credulity.


Exports, Obama said, will double by 2014. But the only manufactured exports that the country has retained after outsourcing almost everything else to the countries from which it has borrowed trillions of dollars to buy them are aircraft and advanced-technology equipment. There is not the faintest hint of how the exported quantities of these products will double, and certainly nothing to inspire hope that anything that has been outsourced will be repatriated, to be made by the huge numbers of unskilled laborers who will be affected by Mr. Obama’s promise to “take on illegal immigration.” The promised “review of government regulations” is a commendable recognition that the commerce of the country is being strangled; given the president’s status as the most zealous and righteous regulator in American history, the offhand promise carried something less than the fervor of the grace of conversion.


His response to the recent House of Representatives vote to repeal his health-care act was: “If you can make health care better or more affordable, I’m eager to work with you.” The president knows perfectly well that to reduce the cost of health care from the $7,000 per capita it is in the U.S. to closer to the $3,000 it is in other advanced countries with good medical care that is generally accessible, he will have to go far beyond the malpractice award caps he envisioned, and also muscle the drug companies as other countries have done, as well as the private hospital companies and unions, and adopt the Republican 2008 campaign-platform proposal of giving a health-care credit to everyone, offering complete competition in acquisition of health-care options, and taxing deluxe health-benefit packages that constitute de facto income (for those who can afford the tax). Half-measures such as his bill, which may be the most ill-considered statute in this jurisdiction since Townshend’s tax on tea in 1767, make things worse and not better.


The warning about the dangers of debt was a bit rich coming from the president who has increased debt by over $2.5 trillion in two years. There remains in the U.S., as in Europe and Japan, no indication that there is any disposition to pay down the horrifying debts that have piled up, rather than, in a silent conspiracy of utter cowardice, simply to devalue the currencies in which the debt is denominated, in the hope that doing so together and gradually will disguise the rape of the thrifty and the prudent and the financially defenseless that that implies. A five-year freeze on 12 percent of budget expenses is a small step forward, but far short of the radical measures required.


The president of earmarks, who declined to disown them when running for election and winked at their colossal profusion in his first two years, also had a credibility gap when he declared war on the earmarks (individual scraps of patronage pasted by congressmen and senators onto unrelated bills in exchange for their votes, i.e., pork barrel, log-rolling, and back-scratching). He deserves an oratorical Razzie, if not an Academy Award, for perorating: “There isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on earth.” Perhaps not, in the U.S. Congress, but that is scarcely comforting.


In foreign affairs, he said, “we must defeat determined enemies wherever they are”; and “our civilians will forge a lasting partnership with the Iraqi people” (this is the hallucinatory vision of the commander-in-chief who opposed the entire mission); while “the Iranian government faces tougher and tighter sanctions” (though no sane person expects them to accomplish anything); and, just when I thought it couldn’t become more implausible, “With our European allies, we have revitalized NATO” (it has become a bedraggled group of countries happy enough to accept a U.S. military guaranty but unwilling to pay for it).


The president, to his credit, does recognize that the American corporation is grossly overtaxed, and he has overcome the long swoon of the AFL-CIO and Nancy Pelosi with the Colombian Communist guerrillas and now favors the long-stalled free-trade agreement with that country. The spaniel-eyed Paul Ryan for the Republicans and the peppy Michele Bachmann for the Tea Partiers gave their usual competent recitations of the economic facts, but did not reply to the president, as was billed. They read pre-written statements off teleprompters, when an effective reply could easily have been prepared by any experienced debater in the two or more hours that the text of the president’s message was available.


Mr. Obama said, “We do big things.” The country has, but there was no sign of it on Tuesday night, and the spirit of declinism was heavy, in the flaccid speaking, the sophomoric enthusiasms of the legislators, the very scattered applause, the partial boycott of the Supreme Court, and the distracting giggling of Joe Biden. These occasions were once celebrations, sometimes unjustifiably and tastelessly so. They have become an agony.


— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.


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