A Belated Response to the State of the Union
I did not watch the State of the Union live; I was too busy attending another very important discussion while President Obama was addressing Congress. And yesterday, I was too tied up with other things to blog a lot. Still, pundits gotta punditize, so I want to offer my two cents on the president’s address.
While there were more gestures of conciliation to Republicans to be found in the State of the Union than there were in the inaugural address, I agree with those who believe that the State of the Union was meant to be yet another sop to the president’s liberal base. The president still wants to soak “the rich” in order to pay for spending programs and in order to make some kind of effort to pay down the deficit. Throwaway statements indicating a need for “reform” when it comes to entitlements were offered, but there were few specifics; “more” would be asked from “the wealthiest seniors” when it comes to reforming Medicare, but no one appears to know what that means, specifically. The president says that he is “open to additional reforms from both parties, so long as they don’t violate the guarantee of a secure retirement.” Again, the details are missing. Specificity only appears to come about when the president promises to get rid of “tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and well-connected.” Since the president’s base likes that kind of talk, he is happy to get into details in discussing the subject matter. I am glad that there was a call for tax reform to be found in the State of the Union, but the president says nothing about lowering and flattening rates and broadening the base. For him, the “progressive” system works fine; never mind the fact that it is needlessly complicated and does more to stifle economic growth than it does to encourage it.
Of course, I agree with the president’s statement that any economic plan requires more than just deficit reduction. But since the president’s comments on deficit reduction are alarmingly thin, I can’t take seriously his claims to be a responsible fiscal hawk.
Promises of “energy independence” are found in the president’s State of the Union, but no politician will be brave enough to tell us the truth—that energy independence is mostly a myth. (More here.) Diversifying sources of energy is fine and good, and I applaud the effort, but it is worth reminding ourselves that it will take a very long time to accomplish this goal. But you wouldn’t know it from the president’s address.
The president promises us that he will help parents with college selection for their kids:
Through tax credits, grants, and better loans, we have made college more affordable for millions of students and families over the last few years. But taxpayers cannot continue to subsidize the soaring cost of higher education. Colleges must do their part to keep costs down, and it’s our job to make sure they do. Tonight, I ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act, so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid. And tomorrow, my Administration will release a new “College Scorecard” that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.
The problem, of course, is that “where you can get the most bang for your educational buck” is a question that is not answered with a mere discussion of dollars and cents. Where to go to college is a deeply personal question whose answer depends on the interests of a prospective student, lifestyle/living concerns, and financial resources. Of course, I don’t expect the president to play the role of college counselor during his State of the Union address, but his discussion regarding the college choices that parents and students face was remarkably free of specifics.
I applaud the president’s desire to achieve real immigration reform; I think that encouraging talented and hardworking immigrants to come to the United States, better their own lives and contribute to the betterment of the nation in the process is the quickest way to significantly revitalize the American economy. Should the president achieve significant immigration reform that allows for a liberalized immigration policy to be implemented, I’ll be very glad indeed. But it is worth reminding ourselves that the path to immigration reform is a very hard one, and President Obama does stand a not-inconsiderable chance of failing in the effort.
Calling for an increase in the minimum wage is an old liberal bromide, so I am not surprised that it found its way into the president’s speech. But increasing the minimum wage only leads to further unemployment—notably for younger workers. Too bad that few—if any—commenters on the State of the Union address stated as much. Offering “incentives” to companies to hire American workers sounds nice, but if those companies don’t have a need for more workers, all the government-provided “incentives” in the world won’t change that fact.
The president sought to win applause from those tired of a global American role by promising to end the war in Afghanistan soon. He failed to note that defense officials—including Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—have stated that American troops are likely to remain in Afghanistan, with Secretary Panetta saying that there will remain “an enduring presence” of American troops in the country. While lauding the notion that al Qaeda is now “a shadow of its former self,” the president did not mention that the Benghazi attacks prove that al Qaeda remains a significant force with which we must reckon. The president promised that “our targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists” should remain “consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances,” but failed to remind viewers that contrary to his promises, the detention center at Guantanamo Bay remains open, and indefinite detention—and likely extraordinary rendition—continue, despite then-Senator Obama’s promise in 2008 to do away with these Bush administration policies. Moreover, the president mentioned nothing about the significant lack of oversight when it comes to the drone program.
Megan McArdle on the speech:
… this was a speech to make Democrats happy and Republicans mad, and put no one in very much of a mood for a deal. He’s decided that the best way to get anything out of Republicans is to accuse them of not caring about the vulnerable, which may be true—but it’s only a way to get the most minimal possible level of cooperation. It will not get you the kind of actual willing cooperation that you need to get anything more ambitious than a three month extension of the sequester.
Nor did he prepare his own side for compromise. He did not ask anyone to the left of Susan Collins to make any sacrifices. The way he ended on gun control was very powerful, and undoubtedly gave that legislation a boost. But I think it’s telling that this was where he put the emotional weight of the speech.
This means, I suspect, that he is hoping to pass off the painful budget choices to his succeessor. At last year’s Peterson Fiscal Summit, Doug Holtz-Eakin noted that any deal had to be done this year, because next year we’ll be going into midterms, and after that, Obama will not have enough political capital: folks will be looking forward to the 2016 election. (Can you say “permanent election cycle”?) By then the choices will be much more painful, as more of the baby boomer retirements will be showing up in the budget calculations. But when it comes to spending cuts and tax hikes, politicians (and voters) seem to be hyperbolic discounters: they prefer a lot of pain later to a little pain now. Obama, like Congress, is punting on the biggest issue facing them: how much government we are willing to pay for.
Dan Drezner points out that the president was mercantilist and antediluvian when it came to trade policy:
… Obama was using comparative language to contrast the United States with other countries — or, as he would put it, other magnets for jobs. The explicit thesis is that unless the United States makes the necessary investments, scarce jobs will leave American shores.
Obama has used this kind of rhetoric on the campaign trail and in previous SOTUs. It reveals a somewhat mercantiilist worldview, one in which jobs and economic growth have a zero-sum, relative gains quality to it.
Now on the one hand, announcing the formal start of negotiations with the EU on a trade deal augurs well for my prediction last year about foreign economic policy playing a big role in Obama’s second term. On the other hand, viewing trade through a mercantilist lens will make tough negotiations even tougher … which means I might owe Phil Levy an expensive DC dinner.
In a speech in which traditional security threats seemed very much on the wane in terms of actual threat as well as political salience, it would be a cruel twist of fate to ratchet up ill-conceived foreign economic threats as a substitute.
As for the Republican response, Marco Rubio was … well … back to McArdle:
… Yes, yes, drink of water, hahahaha. But that was the most effective SOTU response I’ve ever seen, water included. I’m not grading the policy content of the speech, mind you—though as an aside, let’s just say that I’m not a fan of false claims that the GOP can get the economy up to 4% growth by unleashing the awesome power of the free market. But Rubio mounted the most effective response I’ve seen to the President’s attacks on Republicans as uncaring obstructionists, and he delivered it well.
That by itself is an amazing achievement; delivering an emotional speech to a camera is extremely hard to pull off, which is why most of them come off as something between eighth-grade awkward and completely robotic. Rubio is obviously a gifted speaker with a keen ear for winning political rhetoric, and he is pretty clearly going to run for the White House in 2016. He will make a formidable opponent. Though I do recommend that he pay a little more attention to hydrating before major events.