Delayed Reaction to the State of the Union

It has taken me a while to assess my reaction to President Obama’s speech. On the whole, I think his supporters should be somewhat dismayed. It struck me as very effective in diagnosing problems, and in proposing policy solutions that – even though I disagree with many (but not all) of them – are well-reasoned and might plausibly succeed; but as far as I can see, he proposed no realistic solution to the political problem that he argued is at the heart of our inability to take useful action on these proposals.

At the highest level, Obama was precise about the central problem of our political economy: dealing with the current phase of democratic capitalism, characterized by the race between technology and skills, and the challenges of globalization. After reviewing how his administration has addressed the challenges of the past year, he came to what I think is the core of his diagnosis and proposals. He started with a statement of the problem:

From the day I took office, I’ve been told that addressing our larger challenges is too ambitious; such an effort would be too contentious. I’ve been told that our political system is too gridlocked, and that we should just put things on hold for a while.

For those who make these claims, I have one simple question: How long should we wait? How long should America put its future on hold? (Applause.)

You see, Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse. Meanwhile, China is not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany is not waiting. India is not waiting. These nations — they’re not standing still. These nations aren’t playing for second place. They’re putting more emphasis on math and science. They’re rebuilding their infrastructure. They’re making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs. Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America. (Applause.)

As hard as it may be, as uncomfortable and contentious as the debates may become, it’s time to get serious about fixing the problems that are hampering our growth.

He then went on to lay out his proposals:

Now, one place to start is serious financial reform. … Next, we need to encourage American innovation. …Third, we need to export more of our goods. …Fourth, we need to invest in the skills and education of our people.

Now, I disagree with many (but not all) of the specifics of how the President proposed to deal with these items (e.g., encouraging innovation via government direction of resources, educational improvement through greater central allocation of resources, etc.). But he described the challenge (“These nations aren’t playing for second place.”), and broke this down into the core areas that must be addressed to meet this challenge, in terms that I find to be extremely compelling.

The obvious question to be addressed was why we have had so little tangible progress in Washington against these problems during the first year of his presidency. His theory, referenced in the passage above, is that “gridlock” has prevented this. He argued, implicitly but clearly, that members of the government are not putting the general welfare ahead of individual and factional interests. He returned to this over and again:

But what frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is Election Day. We can’t wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about the other side — a belief that if you lose, I win. Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can. The confirmation of — (applause) — I’m speaking to both parties now. The confirmation of well-qualified public servants shouldn’t be held hostage to the pet projects or grudges of a few individual senators. (Applause.)

Washington may think that saying anything about the other side, no matter how false, no matter how malicious, is just part of the game. But it’s precisely such politics that has stopped either party from helping the American people. Worse yet, it’s sowing further division among our citizens, further distrust in our government.

So, no, I will not give up on trying to change the tone of our politics. I know it’s an election year. And after last week, it’s clear that campaign fever has come even earlier than usual. But we still need to govern.

In this speech, then, he traced a theory all the way from observable problem through a sequence of asserted causation down to a root cause: a political class that refuses to do its job. Later, in what I (and probably only I) found to be the most moving part of the speech he put it this way:

Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths and pointing fingers. We can do what’s necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what’s best for the next generation.

But I also know this: If people had made that decision 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 200 years ago, we wouldn’t be here tonight. The only reason we are here is because generations of Americans were unafraid to do what was hard; to do what was needed even when success was uncertain; to do what it took to keep the dream of this nation alive for their children and their grandchildren.

Go back and look at video. There is no more clapping, laughter and mugging for the camera. All you see is a bunch of people silently squirming in their seats. He is calling them out, and they know it.

And then, as the listener waits for him to come out swinging – to tell us what he proposes that we actually do to meet the political problem he has identified – he retreated back to more letter reading about the struggles of ordinary Americans. He flinched from proposing a solution to the problem he asserts is at the root of the important issues facing the country.

There are only two possibilities: either he is basically right that that lack of fidelity to the public good by the political class is why he can’t get his policy proposals implemented into law, or he is not. If he is right, then asking everybody to play nice won’t, by definition, fix the problem. Proposing procedural reforms to lobbying and so forth (as the president did) won’t fix it, because such a political class would simply make sure that such reforms were Potemkin affairs that did nothing to address the root problem. If he is trying to go over the heads of Congress, and shame them in front of the American people, he has not come close to the depth, intensity and repetition of the criticisms he would need to make such a strategy work. But if is he is not right, then he has misidentified the problem. Either way he is stuck without a proposed course of action – which is where, at least in this speech, I think he found himself.