Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Evaluating 2014

The transcript for President Obama's final press conference of the year has just become available.  Though the questions were mostly about North Korea and Cuba (which I'll skip), he began by emphasizing decisions and policies that came into fruition in 2014, some going back to the start of his administration 6 years ago:

"In last year’s final press conference, I said that 2014 would be a year of action and would be a breakthrough year for America. And it has been...  The steps that we took early on to rescue our economy and rebuild it on a new foundation helped make 2014 the strongest year for job growth since the 1990s. All told, over a 57-month streak, our businesses have created nearly 11 million new jobs. Almost all the job growth that we’ve seen have been in full-time positions. Much of the recent pickup in job growth has been in higher-paying industries. And in a hopeful sign for middle-class families, wages are on the rise again.

Our investments in American manufacturing have helped fuel its best stretch of job growth also since the 1990s. America is now the number-one producer of oil, the number-one producer of natural gas. We're saving drivers about 70 cents a gallon at the pump over last Christmas. And effectively today, our rescue of the auto industry is officially over. We've now repaid taxpayers every dime and more of what my administration committed, and the American auto industry is on track for its strongest year since 2005. And we've created about half a million new jobs in the auto industry alone.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, about 10 million Americans have gained health insurance just this past year. Enrollment is beginning to pick up again during the open enrollment period. The uninsured rate is at a near record low. Since the law passed, the price of health care has risen at its slowest rate in about 50 years. And we’ve cut our deficits by about two-thirds since I took office, bringing them to below their 40-year average."

"...And in less than two weeks, after more than 13 years, our combat mission in Afghanistan will be over.
Today, more of our troops are home for the holidays than any time in over a decade. Still, many of our men and women in uniform will spend Christmas in harm’s way. And they should know that the country is united in support of you and grateful not only to you but also to your families.

The six years since the crisis have demanded hard work and sacrifice on everybody’s part. But as a country, we have every right to be proud of what we’ve accomplished -- more jobs; more people insured; a growing economy; shrinking deficits; bustling industry; booming energy. Pick any metric that you want -- America’s resurgence is real. We are better off.

I’ve always said that recovering from the crisis of 2008 was our first order of business, and on that business, America has outperformed all of our other competitors. Over the past four years, we’ve put more people back to work than all other advanced economies combined. We’ve now come to a point where we have the chance to reverse an even deeper problem, the decades-long erosion of middle-class jobs and incomes, and to make sure that the middle class is the engine that powers our prosperity for decades to come.

To do that, we're going to have to make some smart choices; we've got to make the right choices. We're going to have to invest in the things that secure even faster growth in higher-paying jobs for more Americans."

cartoon from the New Yorker
Expressing a desire to work with Congress to get stuff done, he also expressed skepticism of GOPer rhetoric on why they couldn't do anything in the last Congress:

"If Republicans seek to take health care away from people who just got it, they will meet stiff resistance from me. If they try to water down consumer protections that we put in place in the aftermath of the financial crisis, I will say no. And I’m confident that I’ll be able to uphold vetoes of those types of provisions. But on increasing American exports, on simplifying our tax system, on rebuilding our infrastructure, my hope is that we can get some things done.

"I’ve never been persuaded by this argument that if it weren’t for the executive actions they would have been more productive. There’s no evidence of that. So I intend to continue to do what I’ve been doing, which is where I see a big problem and the opportunity to help the American people, and it is within my lawful authority to provide that help, I’m going to do it."

President Obama, in setting out the facts concerning the tars sands oil pipeline from Canada, found nothing good to say about it.  So the GOPers really will have to consider whether they want to make their first big fight over this, which benefits the Koch brothers and other oil barons, and nobody else.

After discussing racial issues in a low-keyed way, he ended with a statement of belief based on his experiences and special perspective:

"The one thing I will say -- and this is going to be the last thing I say -- is that one of the great things about this job is you get to know the American people. I mean, you meet folks from every walk of life and every region of the country, and every race and every faith. And what I don’t think is always captured in our political debates is the vast majority of people are just trying to do the right thing, and people are basically good and have good intentions.

 Sometimes our institutions and our systems don’t work as well as they should. Sometimes you've got a police department that has gotten into bad habits over a period of time and hasn’t maybe surfaced some hidden biases that we all carry around. But if you offer practical solutions, I think people want to fix these problems. It’s not -- this isn’t a situation where people feel good seeing somebody choked and dying. I think that troubles everybody. So there’s an opportunity of all of us to come together and to take a practical approach to these problems.

And I guess that's my general theme for the end of the year -- which is we’ve gone through difficult times. It is your job, press corps, to report on all the mistakes that are made and all the bad things that happen and the crises that look like they're popping. And I understand that. But through persistent effort and faith in the American people, things get better. The economy has gotten better. Our ability to generate clean energy has gotten better. We know more about how to educate our kids. We solved problems. Ebola is a real crisis; you get a mistake in the first case because it’s not something that's been seen before -- we fix it. You have some unaccompanied children who spike at a border, and it may not get fixed in the time frame of the news cycle, but it gets fixed."

And a theme we're likely to hear again in the State of the Union:

"And part of what I hope as we reflect on the New Year this should generate is some confidence. America knows how to solve problems. And when we work together, we can't be stopped."

Though he proceeded gently, his emphasis not only on outcomes but on the problem-solving process and the time that it takes, identifies something important and doubtlessly true.  For this process takes time: identifying the actual problems, identifying possible solutions, analyzing costs, benefits and possible collateral and unintended consequences, deciding on a course of action, organizing the administration of that action, getting it started, monitored and modified if necessary, then watching as changes affect the course of whatever it is--all of that takes time, and definitely does not "get fixed in the time frame of the news cycle."

I can only marvel however at his faith in people being "basically good," with good intentions.  It's especially difficult to say this in the face of the ongoing racial situations in which police are killing black men with impunity, and now the New York City police union leader is essentially declaring war on protesters, at the very least.

However he is perhaps on firmer ground in believing that there is good in nearly everyone than whatever faith he has (or must have) in the American government and the international political process.  2014 did not buttress my faith in either, and 2015 will likely be crucial in this regard.  It's true that President Obama can veto the worst the GOPers can do here.  But this is the year that governments can really commit human civilization to do its best for its own survival in confronting the climate crisis.