President Obama’s State of the Union address tonight went better than I expected, although that still did not salvage what has become for me a continuing cynicism about his administration. The speech (text here) was a prime example of his considerable ability as a public speaker (for comparison, just check out Governor McDonnell’s wooden rebuttal.) Yet it also continued the same tone of bipartisanship and the pleas to put ‘politics’ aside that have largely fallen on deaf ears in the past year and a half. The result was a speech high on rhetoric and spirit, moderate on concrete future promises, and low on any ‘change we can believe in.’ (A brief fact check of some assertions can be found here.)
While he heavily front-loaded his speech with all the socially progressive measures that the administration was ready to implement–including tax credits for child care, more transparency on the part of lobbyists, and a cap on student loan payments–he saved the big news about the three year government spending freeze until almost the end. Does this freeze signal yet another reach out to Republicans? If so, it is likely to be a largely symbolic gesture, since the $250 billion that it would save over the next 10 years pales in comparison to the $9 trillion in additional deficits the government will accumulate in that time (Source: NY Times.) It is more likely that the decision for the spending freeze has more to do with the growing backlash about Treasury Secretary Geithner and the rescue of AIG. So at the moment, it (thankfully) does not seem that Obama is ready to trade in the lesser evil of Keynes for the greater evil of Hayek.
One of the most interesting and confrontational moments of the speech, which has already been widely picked up by the cable news networks, was Obama’s criticism of the Supreme Court’s decision to allow unlimited corporate funding for political candidates. With the Supreme Court’s justices looking on directly in the front row, he spoke of the considerable dangers that national and foreign corporate interests posed for politics, and urged Congress to pass new laws mitigating this decision. While one analyst on FOX news claimed that this amounted to directly trying to influence a branch of government, this confrontational approach was one of the highlights of the speech. Even though it turned out he was blatantly incorrect about the idea of foreign corporations influencing elections, it was a good move in terms of placing more accountability on the Court–the least democratic branch of government, and one whose history of recent decisions has been less than inspiring.
Also interesting to note: the speech was permeated with a strong but subtle nationalistic undertone about America’s greatness. Of course, this has been a staple of almost every Presidential address and therefore is no surprise. On the other hand, coming out of the mouth of a supposedly ‘cosmopolitan’ President, these remarks appeared somewhat curious. A couple of times, Obama asserted that second place was not enough for the U.S., comparing the nation’s complacency with the strides made by India, Germany, and especially China. One cannot help but think that such an attempt to tap into the national spirit is precisely because of the partisan tone that Congressional discourse has taken under his presidency. As the fissures of debate increase in statist politics, so do the appeals to the abstract unity of the nation as a means of keeping things together.
But if Obama claims that it’s no wonder there’s so much cynicism and disappointment out there, I suspect that some of it has to do with the continuing grandiose statements on his part. For example, tonight he claimed that corporations still can be counted as those institutions that reflect values such as pride in labor, giving back to one’s country, and helping one’s neighbor. Granted, this was a remark he didn’t dwell on and made in passing. But in the midst of the worst financial crisis since 1929, caused by the worst excesses of capitalism, how anyone can be expected to take it with a straight face is beyond me.
A final remark on the ‘populist’ note that Obama is now trying to strike. Although populist rhetoric in national politics is almost as old as the U.S. itself, in the last year we have seen it become contested territory with the rise of the teabaggers and the coming of the radical/fringe right into the public eye. This led to something of a scramble among Republicans to appropriate the movement into the party as a way of exerting more pressure on the Democrats. (On a side note, the appropriation of mass-movement and quasi-insurrectionary tactics by the right, and the practical surrender of these means by the left since the 1980s, is one of the most curious developments in American politics.) Are we now seeing the Democrats attempt to regain this territory? If so, it would be a mistake for the party to rely too much on the executive branch to connect with the people and attain progressive reform. Doing so runs the risk of becoming complacent on the more important level of grassroots activism. And as history has shown us, socially-oriented top-down reform is rarely a substitute for progressivism or democracy.