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State of Obama: Ten Thoughts on the Speech

Ten thoughts on last night’s de facto State of the Union speech; I’ll stick for now to the domestic-policy parts, as Obama had little enough newsworthy to say about national security and foreign policy (sample of Obama’s fresh thinking: “To seek progress towards a secure and lasting peace between Israel and her neighbors, we have appointed an envoy to sustain our effort.” Hey, nobody ever tried an envoy before!). If you have not already, though, make sure you read Dan Spencer’s list of the many factual errors in Obama’s speech.

1. I listened on the radio, tuning in after Obama had already started, and my first thought, honestly, was: hey, that’s Rush Limbaugh! Obama’s and Limbaugh’s voices aren’t really that similar, I think it was the cadences, Obama projecting his voice over the room the same way Rush does into the mike, and the tone that brought the counterintuitive parallel to mind.

2. This was a blisteringly partisan speech, more a campaign speech than a SOTU address, making it clear that the archly partisan approach of Obama’s first month in office was no accident. The word of the day was “inherited.” Of course, all presidents seek to contrast themselves with, and shift blame to, their predecessors, but even so, this was a bit much:

[W]e have lived through an era where too often short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity; where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter, or the next election. A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future. (Applause.) Regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market. People bought homes they knew they couldn’t afford from banks and lenders who pushed those bad loans anyway. And all the while, critical debates and difficult decisions were put off for some other time on some other day.

Of course, characterizing letting people keep a little more of the money they work to earn as a plot to “transfer wealth to the wealthy” is extremely revealing of Obama’s economic mindset; after uttering those words, I think he owes an apology to Joe the Plumber for calling this what it is.

I will predict this now, as I’ve been saying privately since at least October: by 2012, Obama will still be talking more about Bush than about his own record. Obama’s cagey enough to recognize that his economic policies will only drag down any recovery; he’s going to keep focusing on rewriting history to shift blame. Then again, that will be easier for him than for Congressional Democrats; Obama can rail about a “trillion-dollar deficit” and “the massive debt we’ve inherited,” but the fact is that the deficit for the last budget passed by a Republican Congress was below $200 billion (1.2% of GDP); Obama has added multiples to that just in the last month. And of course, as I always note, the really important thing is the overall size of government, since that comes out of all of our hides sooner (taxes), later (debt), or usually both. And there’s really no mistaking that Obama will greatly expand the size of that. The contest for most baldfaced lie of the night has to be between his assertion that he is pushing the big-government policies he has pushed at every point of his career “Not because I believe in bigger government — I don’t” and his claim about a bill containing vast numbers of district-specific pork-barrel projects that “we passed a recovery plan free of earmarks” (you can call a pig kosher but you can’t make it so).

3. Probably the strongest part of the speech was where Obama explained how the credit crisis affects ordinary Americans. Of course, this was nearly the exact same explanation President Bush gave back in September. And this was hilarious:

It’s not about helping banks — it’s about helping people. (Applause.) It’s not about helping banks; it’s about helping people. Because when credit is available again, that young family can finally buy a new home. And then some company will hire workers to build it. And then those workers will have money to spend. And if they can get a loan, too, maybe they’ll finally buy that car, or open their own business. Investors will return to the market, and American families will see their retirement secured once more.

A major concession for Obama to admit that the health of companies actually affects ordinary people, but of course it was swiftly discarded as he went back to talking about jacking up taxes on corporations during a recession.

4. Sacred cow watch: Obama somehow managed to discuss the troubles of the U.S. auto industry without mentioning the unions once. That’s like discussing Wall Street’s problems without mentioning bad loans.

5. Obama’s “nobody messes with Joe” line about Biden was presumably intended – as it was taken – as comic relief. Dick Cheney actually had a hard-earned reputation as a man you messed with at your peril; there’s nothing in Biden’s four decades in Washington to suggest anyone has ever feared to cross him. Obama’s saddled himself with a Vice President who is a punchline.

6. Obama’s discussion of higher education was strong, but a plan to send everyone to college is absurdly wasteful, especially when – as he noted – many of the people starting college today with federally subsidized loans don’t finish. There are still many jobs that don’t require any college education and many people ill-suited to such an education who nonetheless have other skills that can make them a good living. The end-product of overextension of federal credit for college, as with overextension of federal credit for housing, tends to be program fraud by fly-by-night providers.

7. Promise I will believe when I see it: “end direct payments to large agribusiness that don’t need them”. Obama is as good a friend as the ethanol business, for example, has ever had; he did well in places like Iowa and Indiana by specifically breaking with McCain over farm subsidies, especially ethanol. He supported the horrible farm bill. Converts are welcome, but I’d like to see him back that one up and have the stones to stare down massive Congressional opposition.

8. I’ll be here all day if I get into Obama’s health care and entitlement talk, but a few things are clear: Obama has basically guaranteed that he’ll tackle health care this year, and he didn’t spend any time last night laying out a plan to do so, suggesting that his campaign proposals will take a backseat, yet again, to what Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and Max Baucus and Ted Kennedy come up with. His focus on controlling costs while extending more coverage, though, inevitably means rationing care and cracking down on the profit motives of doctors and pharmaceutical companies, with inevitable long-term implications for the supply of physicians and life-saving drugs. And this passage suggests that, despite his slam on delaying problems down the road, that’s exactly what Obama will do on entitlements, in stark contrast to Bush’s effort to deal with Social Security:

Now, to preserve our long-term fiscal health, we must also address the growing costs in Medicare and Social Security. Comprehensive health care reform is the best way to strengthen Medicare for years to come. And we must also begin a conversation on how to do the same for Social Security, while creating tax-free universal savings accounts for all Americans.

Begin? We’ve had a debate about Social Security in every election year I can rememeber, we’ve had more bipartisan commissions and think-tank reports than I can count.

9. Another amusing yet horrifying passage came when Obama suggested we follow China’s energy policy (which of course involves massive consumption of coal), then in the next breath announced he’d be proposing carbon emission caps. I hope irony left a will, the funeral will be held shortly.

10. Obama’s reading of American history fits neatly in what Jonah Goldberg has described as the literally fascistic tendency to demand the peacetime permanent military-style mobilization of civilian society, the endless search for moral equivalents of war that has been a unifying theme since the days of Woodrow Wilson:

History reminds us that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas. In the midst of civil war, we laid railroad tracks from one coast to another that spurred commerce and industry. From the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution came a system of public high schools that prepared our citizens for a new age. In the wake of war and depression, the GI Bill sent a generation to college and created the largest middle class in history. (Applause.) And a twilight struggle for freedom led to a nation of highways, an American on the moon, and an explosion of technology that still shapes our world.

(I’ll get some other day into my review of Goldberg’s book, which details the history of this sort of thinking in the U.S. and Europe between the rise of Bismarck in Germany and Hillary’s “politics of meaning” in much greater detail; it’s of enormous relevance to the Obama phenomenon).

Obama has chosen his course: push a left-wing, big-government, big-spending agenda with little more than rhetorical window-dressing, and then blame Bush when it doesn’t work. Last night formalized that plan. We’ll see how long he can keep it up.

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