It is not hard to see how the Obama White House might have thought that tonight’s speech would be perceived as a sensible move to the center. The American exceptionalism that has been so rare in Obama’s rhetoric in the past was nice to hear, as was the celebration of entrepreneurship. And in substantive terms, they seemed at times to be going for a kind of (as Mona put it below) “Republican speech.”
In fact, a significant amount of the policy substance of this speech seemed to be lifted from (or at least to bear an odd resemblance to) the domestic-policy half of George W. Bush’s 2006 State of the Union address—including a competitiveness initiative to invest in clean energy, hire 100,000 new math and science teachers, reduce burdensome regulations, and increase federal spending on basic research; mention of comprehensive immigration reform; a promise to simplify and lower corporate taxes, advance free trade, and pass a discretionary spending freeze (Bush proposed a tiny cut, actually); a vague call to look at entitlements someday (but not today!); and a pledge to fight earmarks.
The rest could easily have come from Bill Clinton’s 1996 State of the Union Address—the high speed rail and high speed internet, the bizarre liberal nostalgia for that imaginary time when you could just go to the factory and get a job, or for the imaginary solidarity of the Sputnik era or the great Interstate Highway projects.
But this is not 1996 or 2006. Clinton had a strong economy to lean on, and was basically just trying to stay out of his own way. Bush allowed himself to advance some inane “State of the Union in a box” ideas in 2006 (believe me, I was in the White House domestic policy shop then, and well remember the pain) because he believed he needed to focus on the war, and his speech (which largely focused on the war) amply demonstrates that.
But what is the Obama team’s excuse? This speech certainly didn’t focus on foreign policy or the war on terror. This is certainly not a time when the economy is strong or steady, or when the public’s concerns are elsewhere. It is certainly not a moment for business as usual.
The Obama White House tonight seemed to be betting that the public thinks it is such a moment; that everything is basically fine again, and it is safe to go back to the usual kind of Clintonian chatter about solar panels; indeed, that doing so (as opposed to creating more massive new entitlements and taking over more car companies) would be seen as moderate; that we should be careful to learn nothing from the past three years, and from the glimpse they have given us of what a debt crisis might look like. But the result was a speech wholly and oddly divorced from the moment. That is not what a move to the center would look like today. It not only offered no concession to the strong public mood evident in the last election, it evinced no awareness—not even in passing, for rhetorical effect—of the economic facts and pressures underlying that mood and defining this time in our nation’s life. The president merely notified us that he had appointed a commission to look at the deficit, he noted that we ought to think about entitlements, he mentioned the terms “Medicare” and “Medicaid.” But he proposed to do nothing about any of it.
I think the president and his team are wrong about the public mood, but we shall see. I’m quite sure, however, that they are wrong about this moment on the merits. We have an opportunity in the next few years to avoid a truly disastrous entitlement and debt crisis and foster the conditions for vibrant growth again. We still have a chance to implement reforms that could do this without crushing austerity or terrible disruptions for seniors and other vulnerable Americans. That chance won’t last long, however, and it is profoundly irresponsible to just pretend we needn’t worry about it and can go back to the petty distractions of 1996, or (on the domestic front) 2006.
This speech was worse than bland and empty, it was a dereliction of duty. Let us hope that Republicans do not succumb to the same temptation, but rather follow Paul Ryan’s fine example.