President Obama’s State of the Union was as confident as it’s been since his first election. He notes off the bat the slow-but-sure economic progress that continues to be made, and reminds us that the war in Afghanistan will be drawn down to as far a point as we’re willing to go (i.e. perpetual occupation to some degree).
The choice to outline ambitious presidential terms has been an effective strategy for Obama, and as long as Rand Paul responses and broadside anti-government sentiments run high, doing so may prove an enduring strategy for Democrats. As has become typical of an Obama speech, the president is sanguine in his disposition, placating liberals, meeting the expectations of incrementalists, and losing no Republicans who weren’t going to vote for him anyway.
It is also typical of an Obama speech to convey with emotional clarity, and in this case poignancy those measures which have majority or overwhelming public support, while skimping on the details of more complicated issues. The problem with criticizing Obama speeches is that they are designed to be hard to criticize. Some of these issues are little more than speech-padding, ones which are wholly uncontroversial like better voting practices, bringing American jobs back home, and the fair-pay acts–yet amazingly no ground can be gained on those issues either, nor can it get Boehner out of his seat. Other more knotty national goals, when coded in the language of hope and conciliation, render all antagonists unpatriotic. The goals are framed, such that no unreasonable American could decry them, if not for a national debt crisis and cost cuts looming.
Growing childhood research does say that development begins sooner than we thought, and a national Pre-K program would be nice, but can we afford it? A full-time worker should be able to rise above the poverty line with minimum wage, but will employers employ if it’s implemented–and will it contract the market to a devastating degree? The greater affordability of college and healthcare is an outstanding goal, but you’re inevitably deciding ‘who better to pinch from?’
The GOP’s position is no less ridiculous, asserting that cost-cutting measures and demanding efficiencies in the system will constitute real reform in any sector. Although they argue for the solvency of Medicare, and the strengthening of an already bloated defense budget, were they actually granted their wish for a low, flat tax they would struggle to pay for those two alone. Supply-side economics bases new taxes on unrealized gains, and is an ideal philosophy not for supporting a government any of us would actually like to see, but for doing what is so often held as the conservative objective–shrinking government.
Tea Party politicians present a more ideologically sound argument for conservatism than do Republicans because they want only a government which a low taxed citizenry can support, but, as I said, that’s not the government I see Tea Party supporters wanting either. “Keep your filthy government hands off my Medicare” and the chest-pounding of jingoists who see no room to cut defense as it draws out of two wars is not a bid for small government. Tea Partiers would have a voucher-covered stroke if they realized what a government small enough to drown in a bathtub would look like.
Where Obama breaks from this argument, as he did tonight was calling for more revenues in the form of closed loopholes on the rich, which, if you’ll remember, was as far as Romney was willing to take it in the election. Obama, however is putting the full weight of his reelection and high popularity behind a continued call for taxes on the rich. The GOP, in the budget negotiations that closed at the end of the year, believed they had taken their big hit, and was using the sequester as a leveraging point to cut entitlements, defense be damned (or so Boehner’s bluff would imply).
“Working folks shouldn’t have to wait year after year for the minimum wage to go up while CEO pay has never been higher,” said Obama.
Sufficient added revenues with the various cost-cutting measures to entitlements: means testing, reducing subsidies to wealthy seniors, the various ACA provisions sharing the cost of Medicare, etc. will be a start to retaining most government services we all enjoy, but even the most liberal of us should be ready to see less of and leaner government programs (even more so) as we inch toward solvency. Tradeoff measures will be the real nitty-gritty work of politicians, and let’s hope the greatest change is seen in their effectiveness. Drawing out of Afghanistan should leave enough money lying around to help fund energy and education initiatives, but keeping current programs will require more from the upper 1% and everyone else, and I hope whatever compromise Obama’s expecting to reach will cover the cost of the government he’s envisioning.
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