Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Restate of the Union

The Challenge: Do Big Things

State of the Union Address 2011: President Obama, Vice-President Biden and Speaker Boehner
Yesterday I wrote that there were three reasons to take a look at Obama's second State of the Union speech. Now the speech is spoken; how did those three things turn out?

  1. Respectful political disagreement. There were good words, and some symbolic shows of civility, but there was no hiding the cosmetic and transient nature of even such limited gestures. Six of the nine Supreme Court Justices showed up, including Chief Justice Roberts; however, Justices Alito, Thomas and Scalia did not. Whether their absence is from principle as Scalia stated, or a political are serious reasons can't be decided yet for sure. There were also many lawmakers of opposite parties who had paired off on "dates" to sit side-by-side on the House floor for the speech in a show of political comity. Obama captured the symbolic optimism obliquely, opening with a brief but moving mention of "our colleague—and our friend—Gabby Giffords." Later he referred to Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner (and himself) as examples of actualizing the American Dream and there were several other spots where he deliberately chose to emphasize the commonality which "sets us apart as a nation." Rep. Paul Ryan gave the Republican "response" noting that "some" of Obama's words were "reassuring" but largely sticking to well-worn talking points about the supposedly "failed" stimulus, the need for smaller government, less regulation, more tax cuts, etc. Republicans remain dead-set against investments (a term Ryan derided) in education, clean energy or infrastructure projects such as high-speed rail. While Obama pointedly didn't attack Republicans, Ryan showed no such restraint in criticizing the actions of both the President and the Democratic-led Congress of the past 2 years. Outlook: a rapid return to political incivility within the week.
  2. Obama's leadership and independent agenda. Some positive signs on this, but the speech must be followed by actions. No surprise, Obama embraced several new chunks of Republican orthodoxy, including a freeze on domestic spending for the next 5 years, tort reform (at least for medical malpractice), lowering corporate tax rates and simplifying the tax code generally. He also went down the list of issues that need addressing while avoiding the hard specifics on such things as Social Security and immigration. Obama did defend the sensible middle somewhat, and in particular that freezing domestic spending, or even making cuts solely in discretionary areas would not solve the deficit and debt challenges that have the scolds so alarmed. It was also good to see a defense against the penny-wise and pound-foolish myopia of the GOP:
    Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may make you feel like you're flying high at first, but it won't take long before you feel the impact.
    Eliminating the government role in seeding investment undermines American competitiveness. He is right that we are at a critical juncture, a new Sputnik moment, and government must play an active role, and yes, spend money, to meet the challenge.
    This is our generation's Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven't seen since the height of the Space Race. And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We'll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology—(applause)—an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.
    Government investment has always been critical to seizing success in new technologies, and it remains true today. Outlook: a decent showing, but continued forceful advocacy will be essential.
  3. Climate and energy policy. Obama never mentioned climate change at all, but he was direct on the need for action on energy, emphasizing it early in the speech and making some bold and sensible proposals. Yesterday I hoped that he would go all the way and eliminate all energy preferences of any and every kind, but instead he has largely reiterated the idea of diverting government subsidies away from fossil fuels and toward renewable technologies.
    We need to get behind [clean energy] innovation. And to help pay for it, I'm asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. (Applause.) I don't know if—I don't know if you've noticed, but they're doing just fine on their own. (Laughter.) So instead of subsidizing yesterday's energy, let's invest in tomorrow's.
    Unfortunately, the likelihood of his getting this is near zero because it provides the fodder for an us-versus-them fight, with oil money-funded politicians sure to decry such a "jobs-killing" idea. The API and other lobbying groups for big oil will hate this and will muster all of their (considerable) resources in opposition. Having picked this fight Obama dare not knuckle; this is exactly the kind of sensible centrist position where he can appeal to the American people directly and expose the fault line between the deficit scolds and the corporate welfare faction. It could be very interesting if he is committed—in Congress these are often the same people. Obama proposed another laudable energy initiative, the germ of a national Renewable Portfolio Standard:
    Now, clean energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they're selling. So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: By 2035, 80 percent of America's electricity will come from clean energy sources. (Applause.)
    Regrettably, he also made the apparently obligatory references to clean coal and natural gas, reinforcing the seeming inevitability of these becoming part of the "clean energy" fold in any legislation. Laws and sausages, alas. Outlook: Something old, something new; the proof will be in the follow-through.
Overall, it was a decent speech, but mostly predictable. We have heard Obama make good speeches before, however, and everything depends on whether he stays the course on what he says. When all is said and done, there's a lot more said than done. The future of his career and the country depend completely on choices to come: what will Obama do?

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