The November election sent a clear message to Washington: less government, less debt, less spending. President Obama certainly heard it, but judging from his State of the Union address, he doesn’t believe a word of it. The people say they want cuts? Sure they do — in the abstract. But any party that actually dares carry them out will be punished severely. On that, Obama stakes his reelection.
No other conclusion can be drawn from a speech that didn’t even address the debt issue until 35 minutes in. And then what did he offer? A freeze on domestic discretionary spending that he himself admitted would affect a mere one-eighth of the budget.
Obama seemed impressed, however, that it would produce $400 billion in savings over 10 years. That’s an average of $40 billion a year. The deficit for last year alone was more than 30 times as much. And total federal spending was more than 85 times that amount. A $40 billion annual savings for a government that just racked up $3 trillion in new debt over the last two years is deeply unserious. It’s spillage, a rounding error.
As for entitlements, which are where the real money is, Obama said practically nothing. He is happy to discuss, but if Republicans dare take anything from granny, he shall be Horatius at the bridge.
This entire pantomime about debt reduction came after the first half of a speech devoted to, yes, new spending. One almost has to admire Obama’s defiance. His 2009 stimulus and budget-busting health-care reform are precisely what stirred the popular revolt that delivered his November shellacking. And yet he’s back for more.
It’s as if Obama is daring the voters — and the Republicans — to prove they really want smaller government. He’s manning the barricades for Obamacare and he’s here with yet another spending — excuse me, investment — spree. To face down those overachieving Asians, Obama wants to sink yet more monies into yet more road and bridge repair, more federally subsidized teachers — with a bit of high-speed rail tossed in for style. That will show the Chinese.
And of course, once again, there is the magic lure of a green economy created by the brilliance of Washington experts and politicians. This is to be our “Sputnik moment,” when the fear of the foreigner spurs us to innovation and greatness of the kind that yielded NASA and the moon landing.
Apart from the irony of this appeal being made by the very president who has just killed NASA’s manned space program, there is the fact that for three decades, since Jimmy Carter’s synfuel fantasy, Washington has poured billions of taxpayer dollars down a rat hole in vain pursuit of economically competitive renewable energy.
This is nothing but a retread of what used to be called industrial policy, government picking winners and losers. Except that in a field that is not nearly technologically ready to match fossil fuels, we pick one loser after another — from ethanol, a $6 billion boondoggle that even Al Gore admits was a mistake, to the $41,000 Chevy Volt that only the rich can afford (with their extended Bush tax cuts, of course).
Perhaps this is all to be expected from Democrats — the party of government — and from a president who from his very first address to Congress has boldly displayed his zeal to fundamentally transform the American social contract and place it on a “New Foundation” (an Obama slogan that never took). He’s been chastened enough by the election of 2010 to make gestures toward the center. But the State of the Union address revealed a man ideologically unbowed and undeterred. He served up an insignificant spending cut, yet another (if more modest) stimulus, and a promise to fight any Republican attempt to significantly shrink the size of government.
Indeed, he went beyond this. He tried to cast this more-of-the-same into a call to national greatness, citing two Michigan brothers who produce solar shingles as a stirring example of rising to the Sputnik moment.
“We do big things,” Obama declared at the end of an address that was, on the contrary, the finest example of small-ball Clintonian minimalism since the days of school uniforms and midnight basketball.
From the moon landing to solar shingles. Is there a better example of American decline?
— Charles Krauthammer is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2011 the Washington Post Writers Group.