Monday, January 24, 2011

State of the Usual

The Future Foreshadowed

Obama frowning
Tomorrow President Obama gives the State of the Union address. Doubtless it will cover all the disparate bases of American domestic and foreign policy, be stuffed with the usual applause lines, and deftly navigate between the Scylla of American triumphalism and the Charybdis of looming dangers requiring the utmost of ingenuity, perseverance and purpose. He will deliver lines that will have Democrats standing and applauding even as Republicans sit, stone-faced. There will be a clutch of shout-outs to gallery attendees both ordinary and extraordinary. He will recap the travails of the economy over the past 2+ years and note that things are improving, although there's still a ways to go. Afterwards the utterly insipid punditocracy, drunk on their collectively self-appointed status as Very Serious People, will tell us What It All Means, which will of course be a mishmash of what the factions each represents want us to think it means.

It's all rather predictable. So why tune in? Three reasons:

  1. Is there any hope for respectful debate and political disagreement over the next two years? Who will attend, and how will they conduct themselves? Will there be outbursts, or at least ones audible to the home viewer? Will members of Congress cross the aisle to sit with some of the other party? Finally, will the Supreme Court attend? Or more accurately, will some of the conservative justices do so? Last year Obama called them out over the nakedly activist ruling in Citizens United, and now some apparently hold a grudge. That there is even the possibility that Chief Justice Roberts stays away beggars belief. While appointed for life, they appear so thin-skinned and insecure about their own ruling as to suggest ongoing embarrassment. Roberts frets that the event is a pep rally too political to attend; however the speeches and activities of many of the justices shows that they rise above the fray only selectively, and at their choosing. To not attend a political event is itself a political act.
  2. Does Obama have any independent agenda remaining? Given his penchant towards unilateral policy compromise it's hard to know what he stands for. He has consistently let Congress lead on policy definition. Vilified by both left and right for being a tool of the other he gets no credit for holding the middle ground, perhaps because he consistently fails to define what that middle ground is, much less defend it against ferocious push and pull from the flanks. The fulcrum on which his independence balances or pivots downward is the national debt and the budget deficits adding to it. This will be a large part of the speech, second only to jobs and the economy. A flaccid meander on the subject that gives a nod to all positions will presage his final undoing as an effective leader. Obama must define an intelligent, compassionate, and compelling middle ground, and provide it a spirited, full-throated and unambiguous advocacy. He must take political risks; to not do so would be a larger and more dangerous course, both for his career and for the country.
  3. Are climate and energy a real priority, or just another shabby article on the laundry list? There has been no significant legislation on this in the past two years, and Republicans are committed to preventing any executive action by the EPA. Obama must lead on this, as Congress has repeatedly shown it is incapable of putting aside the narrow interests of its bagmen. The temptation will be to enact more tax cuts of various kinds across a yet-broader array of technologies, benefiting incumbent interests, stifling innovation, and further ceding global leadership to foreign countries and companies. The deficit will constrain bold action on grants and will likely rein in tax cuts too. I hope against hope that Obama will propose something truly bold, which would make the US a leader, level the playing field amongst energy interests, and also improve the budget.
While the speech itself is not terribly important, the spectacle will tell us much about whether the next two years will be marked by strong, decisive action, or relentless partisan wrangling and little accomplishment. It foreshadows the very future of our country as a competitive nation in an increasingly competitive global economy.

No comments:

Post a Comment