Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Build to Last

The theme of President Obama's third State of the Union address could be characterized in various ways, but to me it was about building--not winning, but building the future.

 " Think about the America within our reach: A country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs. A future where we’re in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren’t so tied to unstable parts of the world. An economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded."

He invoked the period of building after World War II, when government managed the transition from a wartime economy and used both the wartime spirit and the experience of using public funds to create public good that would serve the people and private enterprise: the GI Bill, the housing and highway programs.

Later he invoked the Depression programs, when as Rachel Maddow has so eloquently said, America built its way out of economic collapse.  He even used an example right out of her promos: Hoover dam.  He talked about building infrastructure, about building cars, about rebuilding the middle class.

But his proposals demonstrated an appreciation for political realities.  Despite the equal appreciation of electoral politics, the proposals he specifically made were incremental and should be doable.  But he did not stake everything on possible if unlikely action by Congress this year.  In each area he named an action he will do by executive order, or by federal administration initiative working directly with states, private companies, other countries. 

President Obama began and ended his address with reference to the war in Iraq and the raid resulting in the death of Osama bin Laden.  Aside from the not exactly accidental reminders of his two most impressive achievements with the electorate, he used these as a metaphor for the country working together, regardless of differences, on the same mission.  He began:

"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. "

He ended: "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 are joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, and our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong."

The theme of working together and the theme of fairness are intertwined.  Only a country where the fruits of effort are fairly shared can truly be one nation, working for the good of each and all.

 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, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. (Applause.) What’s at stake aren’t Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. And we have to reclaim them.

Casting this characteristic theme with this new metaphor was more than a connection to his famous 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention--it expressed the same conviction.  If you simply listen to this State of the Union, you may well hear what I heard: the strong resemblance to what that 2004 speech sounded like, even in vocal delivery. 

But this time he is President, and his call for collaboration was accompanied by strong statements of where he stands and what he will and will not do. Noting the hard choices and tough fights that resulted in coming back this far from the realities and the further threats of the Great Recession:

And we’ve come too far to turn back now. As long as I’m President, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum. But I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place. 

He proposed measures to further encourage the expansion of American manufacturing, and trade. " I will go anywhere in the world to open new markets for American products. And I will not stand by when our competitors don’t play by the rules."

He emphasized the need and the great advantages of  rebuilding American infrastructure, something the two parties used to agree on as obvious.  Not any more, but he isn't going to wait. "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."

He made specific proposals on education, job training, immigration reform and research and development. He made proposals on energy, both fossil fuel and green energy.  " But I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy...  I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China or Germany because we refuse to make the same commitment here. We’ve subsidized oil companies for a century. That’s long enough. It’s time to end the taxpayer giveaways to an industry that rarely has been more profitable, and double-down on a clean energy industry that never has been more promising. Pass clean energy tax credits. Create these jobs."

He asked for congressional action, but announced his own executive actions: expansion of green energy projects on public lands, and through the U.S. armed forces.

He proposed reforms to make refinancing mortgages easier.  "A small fee on the largest financial institutions will ensure that it won’t add to the deficit and will give those banks that were rescued by taxpayers a chance to repay a deficit of trust.  Let’s never forget: Millions of Americans who work hard and play by the rules every day deserve a government and a financial system that do the same. It’s time to apply the same rules from top to bottom. No bailouts, no handouts, and no copouts. An America built to last insists on responsibility from everybody."

He spoke about our broken politics in blunt language: "The greatest blow to our 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?"

He talked about government regulations, about getting rid of the dumb ones, but he defended the ones that worked, especially in regulating the financial industry, and now consumer protection. "So if you’re a big bank or financial institution, you are no longer allowed to make risky bets with your customers’ deposits. You’re required to write out a “living will” that details exactly how you’ll pay the bills if you fail – because the rest of us aren’t bailing you out ever again."

And he announced a new administrative initiative: "And tonight, I’m asking my Attorney General to create a special unit of federal prosecutors and leading state attorney general to expand our investigations into the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis. (Applause.) This new unit will hold accountable those who broke the law, speed assistance to homeowners, and help turn the page on an era of recklessness that hurt so many Americans."

The part of his speech that seemed most topical (given Mitt Romney releasing his tax returns on Tues, and the bitter charges on the GOPer campaign trail) and will probably be the most discussed had to do with taxes.  President Obama first called on Congress to extend the middle class tax cut for the year, without drama and without strings attached.  He called for the end of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.  He proposed that the tax rate on an annual income above one million dollars be no lower than 30%.  (Mitt Romney paid less than 14% on his $21 million income, or less than half the rate that middle class Americans pay.)  And he made the case for these policies:

" We don’t begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it. When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich. It’s because they understand that when I get a tax break I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference -- like a senior on a fixed income, or a student trying to get through school, or a family trying to make ends meet. That’s not right. Americans know that’s not right. They know that this generation’s success is only possible because past generations felt a responsibility to each other, and to the future of their country, and they know our way of life will only endure if we feel that same sense of shared responsibility. That’s how we’ll reduce our deficit. That’s an America built to last. (Applause.)

He talked about reforming the federal government, consolidating executive departments and functions, and also fixing Congress so that a majority in the Senate can actually pass something.  He decried the influence of money in Washington and politics.  He made modest proposals in both areas, but the White House announced that other actions will be proposed as well.

He spoke then in more detail about America's position in the world, and defended his administration's approach, both with detail and with this withering assertion: "From the coalitions we’ve built to secure nuclear materials, to the missions we’ve led against hunger and disease; from the blows we’ve dealt to our enemies, to the enduring power of our moral example, America is back. Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about."

In terms of response, one focus group noted by the LA Times was broadly positive about the speech and its proposals, across the political spectrum. But the full influence of this State of the Union won't be fully known until November.  Pundits pointed out that few of these speeches immediately move public opinion, though a surprising amount of legislation does emanate from them.  In a campaign year, the influence of this speech may well be in the soundbites that get amplified in campaign ads.

Pundits were generally unenthusiastic and mostly cynical about the speech.  Notably, Andrew Sullivan--author of "The Long Game" Newsweek article defending Obama--was bitterly disappointed.  Political pundits felt it was all too poll tested, but also made the contradictory observations that it was all a campaign speech and not geared to doable legislation, and that it was too conservative as a grand goal-setting visionary campaign speech, and too much of a laundry list of proposed legislation.

One dissident to this early pundit consensus (aside from the commentators on MSNBC)  was Sahil Kapur who wrote at TPM: "The prescriptions lay out a decidedly progressive vision of government."

Pundits admitted however that in contrast to the GOPer nominees, President Obama was more authoritative, eloquent, presidential and optimistic.  The speech arrived on a day that poll numbers show the truth of Lawrence O'Donnell's quip last night that Republicans are about to nominate a candidate who can't defeat President Obama--they just don't know his name yet: both the major GOPer contenders are slipping badly with the electorate, particularly independents.  But though conventional pundit wisdom says that the more optimistic candidate usually wins, GOPers are clearly betting on disaffection and anger (Mitch Daniels so-called rebuttal echoed the GOPer candidates in this.) 

The economic news continues to be good, especially rising consumer confidence.  But the recovery is fragile, and so is the world economy.  Europe is still lurching towards a possible crisis, and disarray in the Middle East--particularly Iran--could still send oil prices into the stratosphere.  Even so, though I recognize that my perceptions are not necessarily shared by the US electorate, I can't see how anyone could witness this speech after witnessing a GOPer debate, and conclude anything but that in bad times as well as getting better, the presidency can only be safely entrusted to Barack Obama.

Here is a video of highlights from the speech, and another of the specific proposals  Here's the official transcript.  And for the politically minded, here's something I noticed--several instances of President Obama directly refuting Mitt Romney statements without saying so.

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