State of the Union Post Mortem
The speech did exactly what it was supposed to do: kick off Obama's re-election campaign while disguised as a call for unity.
Like most Americans, I listened to President Obama’s State of the Union address last night with a glass of Scotch while enjoying and adding to the snarky comments about the speech on Twitter. Even paying half attention, it was obviously a well-crafted speech that did exactly what it was supposed to do: kick off Obama’s re-election campaign while disguised as a call for unity.
He opened and closed his speech with a tribute to America’s military–and taking credit for ending the war in Iraq (even though he simply followed his predecessor’s timeline), breaking the momentum of the Taliban (for which there is little evidence), and killing Osama bin Laden (which indeed happened).
These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness, and teamwork of America’s Armed Forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.
Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example.
Like John Kennedy’s famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” this is simultaneously uplifting and outrageous. It’s beautiful speechcraft and political theater; who could dare not applaud this and be seen as not supporting the troops? But, damn it, we’re free citizens and, unlike our uniformed military, don’t take our orders from the president. Likewise, our elected representatives are there precisely to fight for the interests of their constituents, not to focus on some “mission” handed down from a commander-in-chief.
The notion that we all share a common purpose was a central element, if not the unifying theme, of the speech.
At the end of World War II, when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known. My grandfather, a veteran of Patton’s Army, got the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. My grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line, was part of a workforce that turned out the best products on Earth.
The two of them shared the optimism of a Nation that had triumphed over a depression and fascism. They understood they were part of something larger; that they were contributing to a story of success that every American had a chance to share – the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.
The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive. No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. What’s at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. We have to reclaim them.
Again, this is wonderful speechcraft. It takes a page from the Republican playbook, recalling a better time through a sepia colored lens. But the fact of the matter is that far more Americans go to college, own a home, and save for retirement now than in 1946. It’s also worth noting that the grandfather Obama is referring to was white; black Americans were mostly denied those rights back then. Indeed, from the standpoint of racial minorities, women, gays, and many other groups we’re far closer to everyone getting a fair shot and playing by the same rules now than we were 26 years ago, much less 66. For that matter, even in the depths of the greatest economic calamity since the Great Depression, a far smaller percentage of Americans are living in real poverty than they were when WWII ended.
That license aside, he’s hitting the right notes there. The economic crisis is still ongoing and even many not directly impacted fear that their children won’t have the opportunities that they’ve had. College is getting radically more expensive while becoming less of a guarantor of a good living than it was. And the bailouts and skewing of the tax code to benefit the investor class have outraged people across the political spectrum, as demonstrated by the Tea Party and Occupy movements.
On the day I took office, our auto industry was on the verge of collapse. Some even said we should let it die. With a million jobs at stake, I refused to let that happen. In exchange for help, we demanded responsibility. We got workers and automakers to settle their differences. We got the industry to retool and restructure. Today, General Motors is back on top as the world’s number one automaker. Chrysler has grown faster in the U.S. than any major car company. Ford is investing billions in U.S. plants and factories. And together, the entire industry added nearly 160,000 jobs.
We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity. And tonight, the American auto industry is back.
This is a strong stump line, especially since many on the other side–myself included–opposed the auto bailouts. Now, I’d argue that companies ought to be profitable once rescued from all their bad debt. And that would have happened had GM and Chrysler gone through bankruptcy, too. But Obama will get credit, in the Rust Belt at least, for the results.
I got a chuckle out of this, though:
Two years ago, I set a goal of doubling U.S. exports over five years. With the bipartisan trade agreements I signed into law, we are on track to meet that goal – ahead of schedule. Soon, there will be millions of new customers for American goods in Panama, Colombia, and South Korea. Soon, there will be new cars on the streets of Seoul imported from Detroit, and Toledo, and Chicago.
My joking response via Twitter, “Soon, Detroit’s economy will be so depressed that we can export cars to the 3rd World!”
His education proposals, too, struck me as amusing.
We also know that when students aren’t allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma. So tonight, I call on every State to require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn eighteen.
Or, as I summarized it, “A law requiring belligerent, stupid 17-year-olds to stay in school and ruin it for everybody.” My guess is that the policy, if enacted, would have little impact on educating the segment of the population that would otherwise drop out. And I fear it will both lead to real distraction from the students motivated to be there and lead to yet more lowering of standards to ensure people “graduate.”
This was a mixed bag:
We can’t just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we’ll run out of money. States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down. Recently, I spoke with a group of college presidents who’ve done just that. Some schools re-design courses to help students finish more quickly. Some use better technology. The point is, it’s possible. So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down.
As I observed last night, “Um, the reason tuition is going up is that the funding they’re getting from taxpayers has already been going down. For 20 years.” But the president is right that there are ways for universities to help bring down costs–and he’s correctly identified two of them.
His immigration remarks have some interesting sleight-of-hand:
I believe as strongly as ever that we should take on illegal immigration. That’s why my Administration has put more boots on the border than ever before. That’s why there are fewer illegal crossings than when I took office.
The opponents of action are out of excuses. We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform right now. But if election-year politics keeps Congress from acting on a comprehensive plan, let’s at least agree to stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses, and defend this country. Send me a law that gives them the chance to earn their citizenship. I will sign it right away.
Here, he’s subtly intermixing the issues of illegal immigration and our visa policy for foreign job seekers. There’s strong, bipartisan agreement on fast-tracking citizenship for those who serve in the military. Indeed, we already do it. Many of us also support making it easier for foreign students to remain here after graduation and for highly skilled outsiders to bring their talents to America.
The opposition is to rewarding people for breaking our laws. As a practical matter, it’s unavoidable. As a matter of decency, it’s the right way to go with children who grew up here but whose parents entered the country illegally. It’s a hard sell, though.
This section was a bit of a head-scratcher:
During the Great Depression, America built the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge. After World War II, we connected our States with a system of highways. Democratic and Republican administrations invested in great projects that benefited everybody, from the workers who built them to the businesses that still use them today.
In the next few weeks, I will sign an Executive Order clearing away the red tape that slows down too many construction projects. But you need to fund these projects. Take the money we’re no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home.
There’s never been a better time to build, especially since the construction industry was one of the hardest-hit when the housing bubble burst.
Didn’t we do this three years ago?
Of course, construction workers weren’t the only ones hurt. So were millions of innocent Americans who’ve seen their home values decline. And while Government can’t fix the problem on its own, responsible homeowners shouldn’t have to sit and wait for the housing market to hit bottom to get some relief.
That’s why I’m sending this Congress a plan that gives every responsible homeowner the chance to save about $3,000 a year on their mortgage, by refinancing at historically low interest rates. No more red tape. No more runaround from the banks. A small fee on the largest financial institutions will ensure that it won’t add to the deficit, and will give banks that were rescued by taxpayers a chance to repay a deficit of trust.
I have no idea what the mechanics of this are. What about those whose homes are worth less than they were when we bought them? Or less than we owe? They’re the ones most in need of help.
This was also rather amusing:
I’ve ordered every federal agency to eliminate rules that don’t make sense.
Many on Twitter made TSA-related quips. But, seriously, how many regulations were eliminated by this ambitious but rather vague order? Presumably, some regulator thought all of the rules made sense.
This juxtaposition made my head hurt:
Right now, our most immediate priority is stopping a tax hike on 160 million working Americans while the recovery is still fragile. People cannot afford losing $40 out of each paycheck this year. There are plenty of ways to get this done. So let’s agree right here, right now: No side issues. No drama. Pass the payroll tax cut without delay.
When it comes to the deficit, we’ve already agreed to more than $2 trillion in cuts and savings. But we need to do more, and that means making choices. Right now, we’re poised to spend nearly $1 trillion more on what was supposed to be a temporary tax break for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. Right now, because of loopholes and shelters in the tax code, a quarter of all millionaires pay lower tax rates than millions of middle-class households. Right now, Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary.
Do we want to keep these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans? Or do we want to keep our investments in everything else – like education and medical research; a strong military and care for our veterans? Because if we’re serious about paying down our debt, we can’t do both.
Now, there’s a case to be made for raising taxes on high earners, another for changing the carried interest rule, and another for relief from the payroll tax. And even an argument for why one is more stimulative than the other. Indeed, I lean towards all of them. But, as delivered, the president is basically arguing that our highest priority is stimulative tax cuts–and the way to pay for it is to raise taxes.
The precise meaning of the “Buffett rule” has been debated for some time. Obama finally articulated it last night:
Tax reform should follow the Buffett rule: If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes. And my Republican friend Tom Coburn is right: Washington should stop subsidizing millionaires. In fact, if you’re earning a million dollars a year, you shouldn’t get special tax subsidies or deductions. On the other hand, if you make under $250,000 a year, like 98 percent of American families, your taxes shouldn’t go up.
Actually, I’d say that paying nearly a third of one’s income to the federal government is onerous, indeed, considering that there are still state and local income taxes and sales taxes. And what are “special tax subsidies or deductions”? Is this an argument for cutting loopholes and eliminating rent seeking? Or for taking away the deductions given to everyone else–writeoffs for children, child care, mortgage interest, and so forth–as a penalty for crossing a certain earnings threshold? The latter strikes me as draconian.
A good line here, although actually not driven home very well:
The greatest blow to confidence in our economy last year didn’t come from events beyond our control. It came from a debate in Washington over whether the United States would pay its bills or not. Who benefited from that fiasco?
Obama may have been counting on Americans to fill in the blanks here. Or he’s just setting up a campaign theme. But this wasn’t a “debate” but rather a reckless parliamentary gambit by the Republicans.
The speech closes with a return to the citizens as loyal soldiers theme:
One of my proudest possessions is the flag that the SEAL Team took with them on the mission to get bin Laden. On it are each of their names. Some may be Democrats. Some may be Republicans. But that doesn’t matter. Just like it didn’t matter that day in the Situation Room, when I sat next to Bob Gates – a man who was George Bush’s defense secretary; and Hillary Clinton, a woman who ran against me for president.
All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves. One of the young men involved in the raid later told me that he didn’t deserve credit for the mission. It only succeeded, he said, because every single member of that unit did their job – the pilot who landed the helicopter that spun out of control; the translator who kept others from entering the compound; the troops who separated the women and children from the fight; the SEALs who charged up the stairs. More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other – because you can’t charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there’s someone behind you, watching your back.
So it is with America. Each time I look at that flag, I’m reminded that our destiny is stitched together like those fifty stars and those thirteen stripes. No one built this country on their own. This Nation is great because we built it together. This Nation is great because we worked as a team. This Nation is great because we get each other’s backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we’re joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.
If only our national debate were over something so simple as whether to kill a terrorist who attacked the country.
Photo credit: Reuters
Obama’s critics have been telling him that he doesn’t know how to negotiate and doesn’t ask for enough. As a “first offer” this probably isn’t so bad. That “30 percent” looks fine in terms of top marginal, and if all he’s doing is removing the distinction between “regular” income and other sources for $1M earners, that wouldn’t IMO be so bad.
That actually is his plan, as charted by Steve Rattner. These are kind of hard to zoom in on, but seriously, take a look.. He’s leaving a reduced capital gains rate (20%), but putting “carried interest” back at regular rates.
The interesting thing is that as you look at the “impact” pages in that set, Obama appears to be closer to James, Steven, and even Doug than either Romney or (groan) Gingrich. Obama is only making a mild improvement to revenues. But Romney is going the other way, with an equal but opposite reduction in revenues. Gingrich of course goes nuts and adds almost a trillion to the deficit every year under his plan.
(I don’t think you should describe as “onerous” something you’ve supported in other posts.)
Fact Check dot org has a breakdown of at least some of the data behind what was said and unsaid.
(and my choice was Glenfiddich 12 year)
@john personna: I don’t object to a 30 percent top marginal tax rate but rather the notion of a 30 percent flat tax. In the case of high earners, it may well work out the same.
I think it was a great and unifying speech. I loved the picture he painted of the military and congress. He hit the nail on the head with that one. If only our eaders would listen, what a great quality of life we could have.
Right, so use the Ratter cheat sheet, rather than deciphering the speechified version. Did I blow the link? Here it is again.
As I say, I think Obama’s actual plan is closer to the OTB positions than any of the others.
If I had had to watch it, I would have gone for some good old fashioned rot-gut. No sense in puking up good whiskey over such a wretch-fest.
It is odd that President Obama is talking about optimism at the same time that his administration is carrying out policy that comes from the POV that the U.S. is not competent enough to build a pipeline, a power plant, a drilling rig, high power transmission lines, a waste repository, or a mining operation.
The immigration section is a message for illegal aliens to stay in the U.S. instead of returning to their homes because amnesty is coming. Also, in a time of double digit unemployment in states like California and many graduates of universities like UCLA are working in retail or the service industries, does it really make sense to increase the number of foreign students at universities. Is there really any shortage of college graduates in any field or does the high tech industry just want to push wages down but increasing the number of applicants for each position.
The red tape that slows construction projects includes environmental, union, and procurement regulations. I doubt that many Democrats are doing to support the lessening of any of those regulations such as minority set aside contracting
On deficit reduction, nothing has was cut in FY11 and no cuts have been made in FY12. All of the cuts have been promised in the future and there is enough signaling that they will never occur. My guess is that if Nancy Pelosi returns as speaker in 2013 that all of the tax increases will occur but none of the spending cuts. However, I doubt that Senators like Chuck Shumer (D-NY) will allow Wall Street to take such a huge tax hit.
Given the performance of BP, many Coal Mining operations, and the Alaska Pipeline which is danger because of de-frosting perma-frost…I’d say his administration is spot-on. And that doesn’t even begin to address Energy Sector f’ups like Enron. One of the roles of Government is to protect me from that which I cannot protect myself. Shortchanging that role…as the Bushies did with the Minerals Mangement Service…leads directly to events like the BP spill. That is the Republican vision…let corporations do as they please and the rest of you be damned. I respectfully disagree with that vision.
Kinda funny, related, this thing says my preferences are, in order: Obama, Huntsman, Paul.
Mine was a Glenmorangie. As you say Jim it was a very well crafted speech in which he essentially said nattional unity is heavily dependant on a national sense of economic fairness. And sure there were the usual pious hopes and over broad generalisations but that is to be expected surely? The Gettysburg address it wasn’t but as a positioning statement both in terms of competing national visions and versus an obstructive Republican controlled congress you’d have to give it a 9/10. And if you were in any doubt you only needed to look at the grim expressions on the faces of Cantor, McConnell and co. And of course it was catmint for Democrats. This guy is going to be hard to beat. So now it’s back to Republican nomination battle in FL. Slandevah!
Granted that is true. But your snark ignores the fact that every single Republican has staked a position of ignoring that timeline…and the wishes of the sovereign Iraqis… and staying in Iraq. Certainly a President McCain would still be in Iraq if at all possible.
@James Joyner: I can assure you with complete confidence that Obama is not proposing a 30% flat tax.
The marginal utility of a few more hundred thousand dollars, to someone who’s making millions, is much less than the marginal utility of a few hundred dollars to someone who’s making only a few thousand.
IOW, the poor milliionaires will be just fine.
Heh. For all the talk of whiskey above, these things excite me more.
My first thought was that if I have to start acting like a member of SEAL Team 6 I’m really going to have to intensify my work-outs.
It’s not America in general, but Enbridge specifically that’s incompetent to run a pipeline. Which is an accurate assessment given that we’re still cleaning up the mess from their Talmadge Creek oil spill. Indeed, if Republicans are so concerned about unnecessary spending, they might want to ask why a company that cost US taxpayers $600 million over the last two years isn’t being made to clean up their own mess rather than expanding oppurtunities to make more.
I can’t believe that part of the political calculation wasn’t to draw a contrast between himself as reasonable and optimistic and the UFC cage match going on in the Republican primary fight. Obama, like Clinton, is fortunate in his enemies. (Kind of a gimme, really, when you consider the endemic clownage in the Republican Party.)
@Stormy Dragon: “Republicans are so concerned about unnecessary spending, they might want to ask why a company that cost US taxpayers $600 million over the last two years isn’t being made to clean up their own mess rather than expanding oppurtunities to make more.”
There is a tax on oil that creates a fund for government response costs and when the government is ready it will send the bill to the oil company and it will be paid. Most oil companies will try to do as much of the work as possible themselves (see BP), but the government will always have response costs overseeing cleanup work and providing compensation to people injured by the release.
@john personna: Mine are Huntsman, Paul, Gingrich. But several times my preferred policy wasn’t an option, so not sure how reliable it is. (Although Huntsman was indeed my first choice, Romney was second, and Obama third.)
Heh, ranks would have to thin a bit before Paul got my actual vote. Perhaps it is the same with you and Gingrich. 😉
I’m going to have to grind you guys, though. I think Romney has your loyalty, even while Obama has your policy.
Largely right. Though sometimes “try to do most of it themselves” is actually “stonewall as much and as long as possible. I’ve seen both approaches. The former is fine – oftentimes money is saved that way, which is to the good. The latter… happens more than I think any of us would like.
I don’t know anything about the Talmadge Creek spill in particular, of course (other than a quick google that seems to confirm it was a large-scale event).
I can’t get that quiz to work from here ;), but I often find what James mentions: the questions and available answers are poor, so I never feel like the result really matches what I want.
@john personna: Mine were (1) Romney, (2) Huntsman, and (3) Bachman. I would never vote for Bachman, she’s patently unqualified, but she appears to have my preference for tax simplification (as does Huntsman).
@Rob in CT:
I’m sure you all notice that they were pulled from candidates stated (claimed?) positions, and so they are forcing us to choose one of them.
There’s a problem with a Tolstoyan view of the great men in history. You think, sure, he’s fortunate in his enemies, that’s all. But soon you think anyone successful has been fortunate in their enemies, which just means, wait a minute, we’re all idiots.
Then again, that might be a feature of the Tolstoyan view, and not a flaw.
It’s like, how could anyone have thought Mitt Romney would make a good presidential candidate? Oh, wait, he was fortunate in his competitors, a bunch of slack-jawed yokels that haven’t been paying attention for the last twelve years. But this just means Obama was fortunate in his enemies, since he’s getting Mitt Romney as a comparison. It all comes back to what Bolkonsky said in War and Peace,
I can’t get the quiz to load right now, so no, I didn’t notice that. I was speaking generally.
Despite some of the gratuitous stuff Jim has my respect because of commentary like the above. He is one of the very few conservative bloggers/commenters with any sense of proportion or objectivity. He’s a fairly doctrinaire conservative but doesn’t continually deny reality as so many of them do (although I recognise there may sometimes be pecuniary motives). Amidst the acres of comment on last night surely the funniest I’ve read was by one Kevin Hassett of the AEI who dismissed Warren Buffett as “economically illiterate rube.” Mr Hassett btw is famous (or infamous) as the author of a tome in the late 90’s predicting the Dow was going to 36,000.
I got Obama (by a long way), then Huntsman, then Bachmann. Not sure why I got Bachmann, but since there’s nothing in the quiz which shows her howling-at-the-moon side, she can turn out to be more popular in this format than real life.
“Bonaparte was born lucky. He has excellent soldiers. And the Germans were the first he attacked. You’d have to be a do-nothing not to beat the Germans. Ever since the world began, everybody’s beaten the Germans. And they’ve beaten nobody. Except each other. It was on them he earned his glory.”
A strange quote from Bolkonsky given that his father (retired general old Prince Bolkonsky) was a contemporary of the genius king of Prussia and his magnificent army and rather modelled himself on the Prussians. If I remember the novel correctly wasn’t he in fact nicknamed “The Prussian” by other members of the Russian aristocracy. Perhaps what Bolkonsky meant was the Austrians.
It’s telling me Obama, Huntsman, then Gingrich, but I can’t tell why it prefers Gingrich over Romney. They look identically vertical here.
Quiz suffers from being drawn from stated candidate talking points rather than, say, a broader selection of political views. The experience question was the most loaded from my perspective.
@Brummagem Joe: That quote is old Prince Bolkonsky, if you mean the father of one of the main characters who dies from a stroke later on (the father, not the main character). Also probably using a different translation from mine.
@john personna: Me too, except Omama, Paul, Gingrich. And a long drop to second. Unsurprising, as there were no questions about whether I though the candidate was honest, competent, or sane.
@Tillman: “if you mean the father of one of the main characters who dies from a stroke later on (the father, not the main character).”
Old Prince Bolkonsky, Andrei’s father. Indeed that is the one which surely means he actually meant the Austrians since I’m sure I’ve remembered the details about his military career and personality correctly. He even wore his hair in the Prussian style I seem to remember.
Why should responsible oil companies be taxed to clean up after irresponsible ones? All this does is encourage lowest common denominator behavior.
@john personna: Obama – Paul – Perry although I can’t imagine how I could ever vote for Paul or Perry. @Tillman:
Anyone want to guess the chances the government will be “ready” to send Enbridge a bill before 2016, if Gingrich or Romney is elected?
Basically the oil business is inherently pretty dirty. Given that, the decision was made to tax the industry as a whole.
It’s not the only mechanism at work. A company can still incur fines and such for bad behavior.
@Rob in CT:
Is it? Or is it just in the interest of various parties (both in the industry and in the government) to pretend that it is?
We have a fair amount of refineries in the bay area. Oil companies ignore safety and environmental regulations, reach into petty cash to pay the fines, and continue to operate any way they choose.
Obama 8/11 issues…Huntsman2/11 issues…Romney1/11 issues
lol…it’s the same class warfare speech full of Utopian crap and bull**** he always gives..almost word for word!!!!
Just like the lib comments here!!!! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0uAuuQnh90s
Hey….G. A. Phillips is back!!! Exciting…because these comments have not been ridiculous enough lately.
Of course, it doesn’t always lead where you expect.
Oh, we give him credit in California too. Nice that our country still has an auto industry, and all the jobs that go with it.
You are reinforcing my point. The Obama Adminstration agrees with you that there is no company in the U.S. competent enough build and operate a pipeline. This goes along with the POV that there is no one in the U.S. competent enough to build a coal fired or nuclear power plant, a refinery, a high-tension transmission line, a drilling rig or even build a ship.
So the question for the U.S. is if there is not going to be oil refining, energy generation, or even energy transmission, then what kind of the future will the citizens of the U.S. have. Do progressives really believe that everyone can be freelance writers, nightclub promoters, or government employees?