Obama's SOTU

President Obama’s State of the Union speech left me scratching my head. It was a far better speech than we have heard him give in a long, long time. Listening to it, I fancied somewhere in DC, there was a bar with a group of former Democratic senators and members of Congress wondering where this guy was during September and October?

The best part of the speech came when the President spoke about “middle class economics.” The GOP does not like to listen to the word “class” - and they will be quick to accuse the president of inviting class warfare. Former Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia didn’t either. He tweeted out “Not a fan of the ‘middle class’ lingo. Fighting for hard working Americans and small businesses isn’t about class.” Really? If it is not about class, what is it about? While “class warfare” maybe too strong a term, there is clearly at work in the world economy a struggle and the rich are winning – more money, more influence – and the people who are not rich, the middle class and the poor are losing. President Obama did a nice job of reminding Americans of some of the great public policy successes of the past that were built around supporting the middle class: Social Security, the GI bill, free and universal secondary education, Medicare and Medicaid. These programs certainly led to more sustained, broad-based prosperity than did trickle-down economics, and the President was right to say so.

President Obama did not get into details, which is fine, although I miss President Bill Clinton’s ability to match policy details with compelling stories in a speech. I especially wish that Obama had pointed out that his proposal to raise the capital gains tax rate to 28% would put it where it was under the GOP’s hero, President Ronald Reagan. The President was precise when it came to expanding the tax credit for childcare which he properly labeled “a national economic priority,” and, again, he pointed to a lesson from history: During World War II, the government provided universal child care so women could work in the factories while the men went off to fight. He might also have pointed out that a tax credit does not entail a big new government program, but could be used by anyone at whatever child care facility they choose.

The President’s best line came in his defense of his economic track record. As Republicans sat on their hands, Obama turned to that side of the chamber and ad-libbed: “That’s good news people.” And he rightfully challenged Republicans on their own prognostications in the past: “At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits.” Indeed, looking back at the 2012 election, we call remember that Gov. Mitt Romney pledged to get unemployment under 6% in his first term. On Obama’s watch, the rate is now below 6% in two years. And, the next time a Republican critic complains that Obama is some kind of socialist, think of these words: “But there are also millions of Americans who work in jobs that didn’t even exist ten or twenty years ago – jobs at companies like Google, and eBay, and Tesla. So no one knows for certain which industries will generate the jobs of the future.” Those are not the words of a socialist.

The worst part of the speech came when the president turned his attention to foreign policy. One line provoked me to write in my notes – what planet is he living on? That line: “In Iraq and Syria, American leadership – including our military power – is stopping ISIL’s advance. Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group.” The words “American leadership” rankle, and it is far from clear that the advance of ISIL – or ISIS as the rest of the word calls it – has been stopped at all. I hope we will subsequently learn that the administration is finding ways to dry up the funding for ISIS which seems to be as much a criminal enterprise these days as an ideological one. But, until we see some evidence that ISIS is actually being degraded and their progress arrested, it is way too soon to be patting ourselves on the back for the wisdom of our foreign policy.

President Obama also called for renewed bipartisanship, even while threatening vetoes, which I do not recall in previous State of the Union addresses. I am fine with those threats. The GOP warned before the President’s executive action on stemming deportations that taking such action would “poison the well” but the well seems plenty poisoned already. I continue to wish the President would do the one thing he has failed to do to make working with Congress a more concrete possibility: Make time on his schedule to meet with members! A little less golf and a little more schmoozing might go a long way.

When discussing bipartisanship, the President also addressed the issue of abortion. He said, “We still may not agree on a woman’s right to choose, but surely we can agree it’s a good thing that teen pregnancies and abortions are nearing all-time lows, and that every woman should have access to the health care she needs.” The bar is pretty low for Democratic politicians on this issue, but celebrating a lower abortion rate actually required the President to stand up to the most extreme voices in the pro-choice community, which has increasingly argued that choosing an abortion is no big deal, or that it is not a regrettable necessity for some women but a positive moral good. At least President Obama offered words that expose the shallowness of that extremism.

So, all in all, the speech was not what you would expect from someone who just got shellacked in the midterms. Many of my Democratic friends seemed very enthusiastic about the speech, but it really is not news that President Obama is good at giving speeches. The problem is connecting his campaign skills to his governing skills. I am delighted that he did not content himself with middling goals that could easily be agreed to by the Republicans. I am glad he appears likely to use his last two years to shape the debate going forward, focusing more and more on the central issue facing the nation: inequality. He may not be able to enact the policies that would address inequality, but it is a first step towards such enactment to get the entire political universe talking about it.  



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