The theme of Obama’s State of the Union on Tuesday was “We Do Big Things!” That’s undoubtedly true if by Big Things he means Big Government. Obama has “done” Big Government in a number of areas, including health care, military spending, troop increases, corporate bailouts, and so on. The president is quite adept at delivering on his promises—so long as they involve an increase in government power and an expansion of the deficit.
The president’s speech came as his approval ratings, once dismal, had begun to rise, but also as Republicans had regained control of the House of Representatives. It came as the stock market had continued to recover, but as the unemployment rate had remained stagnant. In short, the speech came at a pivotal time for Obama’s future. The speech wasn’t America’s “Sputnik moment” so much as it was the president’s. The night was Obama’s to doublespeak his way out of unpopularity.
The president’s words were presumably meant to reassure Americans that an unqualified and inexperienced leader could, in fact, spur economic growth and bring about budget reform. But the only way to accomplish that was to spin facts, recite bland declarative generalizations about America’s greatness, and recast recent history to justify further gorging of an already bloated government bureaucracy. The president, as expected, used the shooting of Congresswomen Gabrielle Giffords to invoke civility and thereby distract from the reality that America is in decline, largely due to the failed policies and dictatorial political strategies of the president himself.
The night reeked of phoniness; it was the opposite of dignified. As Republicans and Democrats crossed party lines, sat side by side, delighted in the media fanfare, and smiled for the cameras, the president stood before the crowd issuing phrases and promises so general as to be meaningless. Congressmen and women stood and sat, clapped and grinned, shook hands and waved, and did everything in their power to look inspired and thoroughly pleased with the president’s rhetoric. The whole affair would have been entertaining—even comic—were it were not so pathetic, and if we, the people, hadn’t voted for these men and women.
I applaud Obama for at least paying lip-service to “competition,” although his view of how to generate competition is most definitely at odds with that of true capitalists, who believe in lowering and, when possible, eliminating taxes to stimulate the economy. Obama, on the contrary, celebrated central planning as the panacea for all economic ills.
“We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world,” Obama declared, but the public sector—the locus for his type of innovation—is no place to out-anything, anyone. Obama’s cries for increased domestic spending—veiled behind such uncontroversial words as “investment” and “infrastructure”—are more likely to stifle production and disincentivize innovation. Subsidizing “clean” fuel and alternative energies will, as always, continue to cost taxpayers more money to appease interest groups that the president favors over American liberties. On this point, for instance, the president, under the auspices of the Department of the Interior, will persist in his efforts to shut down offshore drilling. During the speech, the president failed to disclose the estimated cost of these efforts. It seems he does not know them. It seems no one does.
For his part, Obama pledged to freeze discretionary domestic spending, but the amount in question pales in comparison to the amount, say, that he authorized to bail out the corporate elite that funded his rise to the presidency. As if to preemptively deflect criticism that he’s a darling of the corporate elite—a criticism that is undoubtedly true, if the Wall Street bailouts or the overwhelming corporate support for Obama over McCain are any indication—Obama touted a revamping of the corporate tax code. Not a bad idea. But will he actually take action on this score? Only time will tell, but that’s a tall order for the most expansionary administration since LBJ and FDR.
Predictably, we didn’t hear anything about Obama’s meddling in Okinawa, or his role in ousting Yukio Hatoyama, the former prime minister of Japan who stood up to Obama and U.S. military leaders only to be forced into resignation. Nor was there mention of the troop increases in Afghanistan, or the construction of new U.S. military bases in Columbia. Obama did not mention Iran, China, or North Korea, although he managed to declare his support for Tunisia, a conflict with little bearing on American life and one that remains uncontroversial among the American public.
Obama did suggest that by 2035, 80% of American electricity would come from clean energy; that by 2036, 80% of Americans would be able to access high-speed rails; and that by 2016, 98% of Americans would have access to high-speed wireless. But these suggestions rang hollow because they implied more government spending, and because Obama did not explain how, exactly, he arrived at the statistics.
The State of the Union is always more inspirational than substantive, more symbolic than practical. It is always more pep-rally than intellectual. Any suave, dark-suited, standard-issue politician could recite platitudes and send the sectaries and sycophants soaring from their seats. But this year’s State the Union was different. It was—how do I say this?—more of a circus.
Amid this spectacle, the only promising development was the Tea Party Caucus’s rebuttal to Obama’s speech—and to Republican Paul Ryan’s rebuttal. Perhaps we saw the beginnings of a new political party in America: The Tea Party. Political parties have come and gone before, and it’s probably time for the Democrat-Republican cartel to get broken up. Unfortunately, Michele Bachmann’s answer on behalf of the Tea Party was dulled by a distracting technical failure that caused her to speak into the wrong camera. Nonetheless, the Tea Party’s words were there to be heard on a level that would have been difficult to imagine one year ago. Bachmann got her message out loud and clear: the president is spending our country out of control. What she didn’t say and what is equally true is that the president used the shooting of a congresswoman and the national mood that came with that event to divert from his failure as the leader of our country.
Perhaps most disappointing of all was the media response to the State of the Union. Few commentators seemed to see beyond the “hokeyness” and yuk-yuk silliness. I know I sound like a pessimist, but you’ll understand if I save my optimism for day when America changes course. In the meantime, a healthy dose of realism is in order. It’s time for the media to come to their senses.
It does little good to close our eyes and pretend we’re not sliding down the slippery slope to debt and desperation. It does little good to allow Obama to woo the center and pretend disinterestedness and bipartisanship while maintaining a crusading ideological zeal. Obama’s rhetorical flourishes can no longer stand in the place of sound policy. And we can no longer stand for Obama.
Allen Mendenhall is an editor of themendenhall.