Politics & Policy

A Welcome Omission

Obama declines to declare a War on Poverty.

It is unrealistic to expect President Obama to give a Republican State of the Union address. But let’s acknowledge this remarkable conservative achievement: Nearly every trace of what was once the core Democratic platform — to wit, the fight against alleged racial and social injustice — has been stripped from Obama’s discourse.

Last night’s speech was above all about competing economically with China and India, not about reducing income inequality or racism. Apart from the inevitable swipe at “millionaires,” the speech addressed the American people as a whole, not as a congeries of opposing races and classes.

Obama did not come close to announcing a War on Poverty; instead he merely implied a War on Fossil Fuels, which he presented as much as an economic measure as an environmental one, with only a single, passing reference to “protecting the planet.” Indeed, “clean energy” environmentalism has pushed out the traditional Democratic agenda of racial and urban redistribution, while illegal aliens seem to have replaced blacks as the Democrats’ favorite victims of choice. 

Of course, there was plenty to quibble with in this SOTU speech from a conservative perspective:

• Obama laughably implied that the DREAM Act was aimed at “students [who are] excelling in our schools” and who “can staff our research labs.” Such an act would be easy enough to craft by putting in real educational and achievement requirements in exchange for amnesty. The DREAM Act has no such requirements, however, but is intended simply to legalize as many illegal aliens as possible.

• While he paid lip service to the role of “hard work and discipline” in academic success, he failed to observe that those South Korean “nation builder” teachers whom he wants us to emulate enjoy unqualified authority in the classroom. They don’t have to worry about getting sued by the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department for “disciplinary profiling,” and they demand memorization and rote learning as the basic building blocks of subsequent creativity. 

• Obama left open the implication that the problems in K–12 education, which stem overwhelmingly from the anti-academic culture of students and schools, are a result of inadequate “investments.” “Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education,” he said, “is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine.”

In fact, America’s embarrassing academic mediocrity has zero to do with “investments in education” and everything to do with intellectual laziness. 

• Obama said that he wants to reward “hard work and industry,” while he denounced the “tax break” for the “wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.” (But give him credit for celebrating last year’s extension of the Bush tax cuts.)

• He presented government support for high-speed rail as an economic investment. But the high-speed rail projects already funded by his stimulus programs have been boondoggles — money poured into projects that stand little chance of actually going fast, and that bypass critical transportation hubs.

• He conflated sound government support for basic science in universities with cherry-picking winners and losers in the energy market. He wants to set a “goal” of getting 80 percent of our energy from clean sources by 2035. How did he decide upon that goal? How is it going to be enforced? 

• He set down a marker in the sand against private Social Security savings accounts. 

• Obama perpetuated the myth that the government can mandate health-insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions and achieve other nice goals without something giving elsewhere in the system. 

• He only skated over the recommendations of his deficit-reduction commission; the proposals he mentioned last night, such as a budget freeze, don’t begin to hack away at the deficit, which will require radical entitlement reform — and which should ideally (but unrealistically) be accompanied by the elimination of such parasitic agencies as the Department of Education. 

• Tea partiers will object to Obama’s failure to observe that the federal government has grown to gargantuan proportions compared to the blueprint laid out in the Constitution.

Still, this SOTU was tame and moderate, in a welcome repudiation of Great Society liberalism — and, a fortiori, of “anti-colonialism” and of “socialism.” I would have been ready to jump on Obama for not mentioning family breakdown as the primary cause of poverty — if he had made eliminating poverty one of his goals. But he made no mention of poverty, beyond an anodyne injunction to “make sure that we’re not [reducing the deficit] on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.” 

Instead, with apparent sincerity, he celebrated American upward mobility and entrepreneurship. To be sure, he also presupposed the existence of a regulatory state to channel economic activity, but he is a Democrat, after all. Let’s give him that in exchange for junking the race- and class-warfare rhetoric of the past.

 Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.


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