Thursday, January 28, 2010

Review of Obama's State of the Union Address

My dread was high as I awaited Obama's State of the Union speech. Pundits from all across the spectrum were anticipating a turn to the right - or "centrism" as most prefer to call it - in response to Scott Brown's upset victory in the Massachusetts special election. Rumor had it that he would advocating a massive slashing in government spending, would be rolling back the progressive achievements from his first year in office, would be issuing a 21st-century version of the "era of big government is over" declaration that Obama's Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, famously declared when faced with his own Republican backlash in the 1990s. With barely suppressed glee, experts from commentator Chris Matthews to Senator Evan Bayh were anticipating that Obama had reached the Waterloo of his era of liberalism - that this State of the Union message would be remembered, by Obama's future biographers and by chroniclers of this period in American history, as the moment when any hope of a liberal upsurge in policymaking was decisively crushed by the weight of the Reaganite fatuity that had defined American politics for the previous three decades.

Much to my delight, they were wrong. Although it remains to be seen whether Obama has the political capital to push through the proposals made during last night's speech, there can be no doubt as the ideological direction in which he wishes to take this country. For the first time since the 2008 campaign, Obama offered a program of bold, aggressive, and unapologetic progressivism. The highlights of this agenda include:
- Committing $30 billion from the money reimbursed to our government by the Wall Street banks and extending it to small businesses to provide them with the line of credit needed to stay afloat.
- Enacting a small business tax credit to those companies which hire new workers or raise wages.
- Eliminating all capital gains taxes on small business investment.
- Providing a tax incentive for businesses to invest in new plants and equipment.
- Putting Americans to work on infrastructure projects, from the building of clean energy plants and the "greening" of homes and other buildings.
- Offering tax breaks to companies that employ American workers while denying them to corporations that ship jobs overseas.
- Increasing regulations on banks so that the financial shenanigans which triggered the economic meltdown of September 2008 will not be possible in the future (essentially reversing the deregulatory fanaticism initiated by Reagan and continued by his three successors).
- Investing more money in new industries, from clean energy to biotechnology, that can lead to a genuine economic "boom" - such as those brought on by the interstate highway system in the 1950s and the internet in the 1990s - as opposed to the faux prosperity from the housing bubble in the 2000s.
- Creating a National Export Initiative to improve America's trade with foreign countries.
- Continuing to raise education standards through federal incentives to schools that meet certain criteria.
- Making college education more accessible to millions of Americans by offering a $10,000 tax credit to families that send children through college, increasing funding of Pell Grants, and requiring students who graduate to pay only 10% of their income on student loans, and to have their debt forgiven after 20 years (or 10 years if they choose a career in public service).
- Continuing to implement programs that will aid families wishing to save for retirement and obtain affordable mortgages on their homes.
- Reducing the budget deficit by slashing discretionary spending programs (apart from necessities such as military spending, VA care, Medicare and Medicaid, etc.) by $250 billion from 2011 to 2014.

Inevitably, the speech addressed the primary issue of Obama's first year as president - health-care reform. Wisely, Obama refrained from either jettisoning this issue from his agenda (as some cynical liberals, myself included, initially felt he ought to do) or stubbornly insisting on keeping it front-and-center in his agenda, as certain stalwarts were recommending. Instead he maintained the imperative nature of relieving the economic burdens borne by the middle-class and poor by insisting that health-care reform become a reality, while at the same time moving the issue to the middle of his speech, thereby making it symbolically clear that he would concentrate his energies where they were most needed - job-creation - and place health-care reform its proper perspective.

Other non-economic policy subjects were also touched upon in his speech, from a bold declaration expressing a desire to repeal the military's anti-gay "Don't ask, don't tell" practice to his outspoken criticism of the Supreme Court's ruling that opens up the floodgates of big business's ability to contribute vast sums to private individuals, thus furthering the centuries-old trend of American politicians working in cahoots with our plutocracy.

Finally, it goes without saying that, on every qualitative level, the speech was superb. In the tradition of great American orators from Daniel Webster to John Kennedy, Obama pulled off the impressive feat of making sheer rhetoric brilliance appear utterly effortless. He defended the efforts of his administration's first year without appearing defensive or egocentric; acknowledged errors and shortcomings on his own part with humility that never seemed obsequious or self-pitying; paid tribute to the character of the American people without demeaning his sentiments with the cloying platitudes so often employed by the opposition party; and most importantly of all, he reclaimed the mantle of pugnacious populism that right-wingers from Reagan and Gingrich to Bush and Palin had begun to make into the personal franchise of their movement, even while making it clear that this tone had really been a liberal property all along.

Of course, the question which remains is whether Obama will be able to implement the sundry proposals he lays out in this address. To do so, it is critical that he abandon the misguided notion that gestures of bi-partisan goodwill toward Republicans in Congress will win him their support. What he must remember is that, unlike James Monroe and Dwight Eisenhower, Obama is not blessed with ruling in a temporary one-party system or having an opposition party that is willing to acquiesce in most of his policy goals. The problem isn't that Obama's ideas are too radical; quite to the contrary, his State of the Union speech laid out suggestions that are a remarkable hybrid of old-fashioned New Deal liberalism (infrastructure spending, bank regulations) to plans that would normally make a conservative heart increase its rate by a few passionate thumps (slashing the budget deficit, cutting taxes on small businesses). Nevertheless, he must accept the fact that - having deemed it politically necessary to render Obama's first term in office an abject failure - Republicans will do everything in their power to paint each of his proposals as being paragons of dangerous radicalism, and will vehemently oppose them accordingly. An openly antagonistic relationship with the GOP is the only path for Obama that offers any hope of yielding success. Let them filibuster his proposals to create jobs and cut taxes, to relieve the financial burdens imposed on middle-class families and improve trade with other countries. A weak politician allows oppositional tactics to put him on the defense or paint him in the role of villain; a savvy politician, on the other hand, uses oppositionalism to humiliate and demean those who have made themselves his enemies. If Obama can effectively sell the merits of his proposals to the American people (and despite the dip in his job performance rating, the high percentage of Americans who like him personally suggests that he still has the power to do this), then Republican obstructionism that harms those policies will wreak political destruction on the GOP rather than the Democrats (see the Republican Congress versus Harry Truman in 1948, or the Gingrich Revolutionaries versus Bill Clinton in 1995-96). For that to happen, though, Obama must do what Truman and Clinton did before him - take the offensive, and let the Republicans use the rope with which they wish to cowtie him become their own noose.


Sean said...

I think you put this very eloquently Matt, I could not have said it better myself. Whereas I hope to believe in Obama again, right now I am more than a little disappointed, I think that the real people who need to step up to the plate are those members of Congress who are too afraid to push for liberalism in fear of being painted as a socialist. Obama has mad it clear that he will sign into law very progressive measures, however it is up to our elected officials in the House and Senate to get those bills passed and on his desk. I really liked that he called out the Supreme Court for their lack of vision and political morality for allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money in political campaigns, however it is that very same decision that makes me question whether or not he has the pull and following to overcome the grossly overrepresented corporate force in American politics.

Anonymous said...

damn, I was really reading for your take on his implicit support for cap-and-trade. I loved the sequence of issues he used to lead into cap-and-trade (and never had to even mention the words c&t).

nuke power + oil/gas drilling + clean coal = compromise on emission caps for power sector (code word: climate change)

I thought it was brilliant, esp. his addressing those that doubt AGW saying that even if they don't believe the science the policies are still sensible.

Matthew Laszlo said...

Anonymous (who I suspect is Tom Marcello) is absolutely right about Obama's full-throated support for cap-and-trade legislation. Why did I fail to mention it? Chalk this one up to sheer oversight on my part... mea culpa!