Politics & Media
Jan 25, 2012, 05:26AM

The State of the Union Is Tepid

Barack Obama etches a stark, dramatic choice but can’t really tell us what it is.

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They stood, they sat. Standing ovations at State of the Union addresses tend to be raisins instead of grapes. Too many are called for, so most often they’re measly. This year they looked skimpier than usual. Either the Democrats took their time getting to their feet (“Oh, OK, we’re doing this”) and then dropped down again, or they made the rising up as quickly as the sitting down and thereby reduced the entire exercise to a brief hinge action. I don’t blame them. Congress has half a yard of the Republican Party up its sphincter, and President Obama has an economy that’s still on one knee and listing because the rich trashed it. He could do some yelling, in elevated tones, about the need to take a stand against the 1% and the mad dog Republicans who are crippling our political system on its behalf. Or he could tell America it has a choice to make, a stark choice, and then obscure what it’s choosing between.

The first approach is not Obama; it isn’t anyone who’s been in the White House since Truman. Possibly this is because of fund-raising realities. Possibly it’s because of these realities and because anyone who gets near the White House has learned that the country becomes very nervous about mentions of diverging class interests and the need for government power to smooth out income differentials, even if the smoothing out will mean fewer people who wind up toothless or with prison records. So Obama took door two. He warned America that it had to choose between growing inequality (a word he never quite mentioned) and a pile of decent-sounding initiatives heavy on what I believe Bill Clinton used to call targeted tax cuts. The most exciting idea was the old standby of undoing tax loopholes and the Bush tax cuts, to which Obama devoted a healthy 321 words. It’s worth the space, but the changes still wouldn’t leave us too far ahead of where we were 10 years ago, when the Bush administration decided to get wacky with our finances.

So Democrats found very little reason to keep standing once they were on their feet. What else is new? Most of the time being a Democrat just means trying to keep the other side from doing something disastrously mean and crazy. It’s basically a holding action, and that’s what Obama’s presidency has become unless voters in November break the parties’ current deadlock in Congress. Which they won’t do to our advantage if they think we would use the power to really straighten out the forces that got everyone into this mess.

Still, he’s got a point. “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, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” All right, this bit is one-dimensional: “What’s at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values.” Inequality is among the Republican values, and it’s one that many Republicans have proved willing to place above family-owned homes and fair shots for all.

This is good: “We have subsidized oil companies for a century. That’s long enough.” And, on last summer’s debt ceiling drama: “The greatest blow to 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?”

Characteristic noises of the genre. “A single mom from North Carolina… thousands of talented, hardworking students… cleaner and cheaper… kind of research and innovation that led to… spoke with a group of college presidents who’ve done just that… world’s leading manufacturer of high-tech batteries… laid off from his job making furniture, he said he worried that at 55, no one would… one part of a broader agenda… leaner, quicker, and more responsive to the needs of …”

What Obama wants to do. End the Bush tax cuts. Take half the money we’re no longer spending on the Iraq war and spend it on things like new bridges and the high-speed broadband network; the rest would go to the deficit. End tax breaks for the exporting of jobs overseas. Remind us that Osama bin Laden is dead. Make sure decent kids going to school don’t get kicked out of the country just for being foreign or the kids of illegals. Give a lot of different small tax breaks to companies that scrape together jobs for Americans in America.

Make Congressmen stop insider trading (that is, stop the Congressmen from taking part in the insider trading). Inspire us to achieve increased niceness in our political functioning through contemplation of the behavior of our military units and their personnel. Let “every responsible homeowner” refinance while rates are down. “No more red tape,” he says sternly on that subject. “No more runaround from the banks.” He doesn’t provide much detail, except that government costs in the program would be covered by a fee on heavyweight financial institutions.

What Obama wants Congress to do. Pass the legislation necessary to take the steps outlined above (except for troop emulation and bin Laden death awareness, which are freestanding). “Send me these tax reforms,” he says, “and I’ll sign them right away.” “Send me a law that gives them the chance to earn their citizenship. I will sign it right away.” “Send me a bill that bans insider trading by members of Congress, and I will sign it tomorrow.” Congress won’t do these things, and Obama hopes this will show the public what a blight Republican officeholders are.

Mentions of health care reform. Two, and they come to 44 words. The first was indirect: “I will not go back to the days when health insurance companies had unchecked power to cancel your policy, deny you coverage, or charge women differently from men.” That came 43 minutes in, according to the live feed I watched. The statement can be considered a defense of Obamacare, though it’s very discreet about the program’s existence. We don’t hear the program’s name or even what the program does—namely, make sure all Americans can get health care. Instead we hear what the insurance companies are kept from doing. That seems to be the basis on which America can just about ease its mind around health care reform.

The Republicans say they’ll get rid of Obamacare and still, somehow, make sure the insurance companies don’t act like dicks about preexisting conditions. No one can actually do this (with rules requiring humane behavior, and without the rest of Obamacare, the industry would go bankrupt from free riders), but Obama managed it verbally for almost the entire length of his speech. He didn’t break down until he had a dozen minutes left in the game. Then: “That’s why our health care law relies on a reformed private market, not a government program.” His wording, as you’ll notice, was still rather special. I guess health care reform isn’t a program. It’s just a concerted set of government actions designed to produce a desired result in the functioning of society. In large part, but far from entirely, by adjusting the ground rules of an industry. So that’s not a program.

The “That” leading off the mention refers to a quote from Abraham Lincoln, the one about the government not doing anything unless it’s something the people can’t do better for themselves. To work his nerve up for a mention of his most ambitious policy reform, Obama had to talk about how much he hated bad regulations, quote a Republican on the primacy of limited government, and then offer his policy reform as an example of the absence of a program rather than a presence. That’s how the American people feel about government.

Mentions of Osama bin Laden and his deadness. Two, and the first one came in the first minute, the second in the last five minutes. Together they take up 224 words. You can’t miss them.


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