Americans of all political stripes should give the president his due. For the second time in his presidency, and the first time that did not come in the immediate aftermath of tragedy, Barack Obama attempted to speak to the entire nation, and not his “progressive base.” He spoke of a fairer and simpler tax code; warned against an astronomically high corporate tax rate (as Paul Ryan would after him); and called for greater accountability for schools and teachers, enhanced border control, elimination of what he terms “unnecessary regulations,” and renewed investment in infrastructure.
He also renewed his commitment to combating terrorists who continue to plan attacks against Americans, and to staying the course he set early in his term on the war in Afghanistan. Obama even paid deference to “American exceptionalism,” a truism he once doubted even existed. To the extent that he meant what he said and follows up with concrete proposals, Republicans and conservatives should stand with him.
The president did himself no favors by allowing his aides to leak all day his proposals for repaired bridges, tunnels, roads, and all the rest (one wonders what happened to the new power grid that both Obama and George W. Bush promised, early in their administrations, to build) to please Democratic progressives. Was their intention to dare Republicans to oppose these plans, merely because Obama proposed them? If so, the GOP should not take the bait. Obama is on strong ground when he says that the nation responded to its last “Sputnik Moment” with investments in science, technology, and the next generation. While it is true that the greatness we associate with the United States came not from government, but from the entrepreneurial spirit of its people, it is also true that the private sector, large and small, benefits from transportation, communications, and educational systems second to none.
As they meet the president part of the way, conservatives should remind him not only that he promised to do many of these things before, but that the conservative definition of moving people, goods, and ideas great distances in record speeds entails more than boondoggles such as the Orlando-Tampa high-speed train the president handed the swing state of Florida a year ago. They should put him on notice that, this time, Congress will be standing guard over what it appropriates for purposes it specifies. They should then let him know that they intend to work with him to cut more deeply into discretionary spending than he appears willing to accept.
Buried beneath Obama’s rhetorical flourishes was a dilemma he tossed into the Republicans’ lap. They can say “no” to his spending initiatives, thereby repudiating the Lincoln-Eisenhower-Kemp tradition in their party that would have the government grow the economy and retain the country’s competitive edge not through government spending alone, but through incentives that create conditions for entrepreneurs to create wealth. Or they can enter into a game of “chicken” with him, by setting their sights on entitlements and defense — and thus allow the president to accuse them of breaking contracts made with the elderly and jeopardizing national security. They made their task all the more difficult tonight by allowing the president to believe that, on the eve of prolonged budget negotiations, he is dealing with not one, but two opposition parties. It did not help them that Michele Bachmann, whom the establishments of both parties like to castigate as ignorant, overly ambitious, and ill-informed, gave a more effective talk than the brilliant, analytical, and much-heralded “young gun,” Paul Ryan. With charts and pictures, Bachmann illustrated for the American people the choices they face. Ryan came across as a young, rising partner in a Big Six accounting firm.
— Alvin S. Felzenberg lectures at Yale University and the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University, and is affiliated with the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. He is author of The Leaders We Deserved and a Few We Didn’t: Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game, and is currently researching a book about NR founder William F. Buckley, Jr.