The American economy is still struggling. The stock market is soaring, the fat cats on Wall Street are happy again, but Main Street is still hurting with high unemployment. Jobs from manufacturing to IT to services have moved overseas and are not coming back anytime soon. Companies are continuing to cut back. The housing prices show no sign of recovery in the near future. The deficit is growing, the Republicans are back in power in Congress with their tried and failed tax-cut mantra. In this bleak situation, what can a President tell the American people that can make them feel better? Will the American people take bad news for an answer? Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding “No.”
What can a President deliver under these circumstances? What did President Obama divvy up? He started off by patting the backs of Vice-President Joe Biden and newly elected speaker of the house, John Boehner [who I thought might break down :-)] with some kind words about how you can “make it” in America provided you work hard.
From then on, it was a difficult but elegant dance where he would jump two steps to the right by calling for a spending freeze, and promptly jump four steps to the left calling for infrastructure improvements from high-speed rail to broadband penetration in US homes; then again three steps to the right saying he would veto any bill with earmarks, then five steps to the left warning against repealing the healthcare bill; then four steps to the right calling for medical malpractice reform and an end to illegal immigration; this ultimately lands him smack in the political center. The net effect of this wonderful dance is that he had something in his speech for everyone. It was like Santa Claus showing up for Christmas and praising everyone to the skies, but with no real gifts for anyone. In the end, those who believed that President Obama had turned Centrist are now somewhat convinced of their assessment. Those on the left are relieved that he is still thinking of infrastructure spending. Those on the right are somewhat hopeful that he might be open to cutting spending. Even the infamous Tea party types got some deficit reduction served up for them. And oh, last but not the least, there was the inspirational stuff—the clean energy push, the Sputnik moment, competing and winning the future, and so on—and the parroting of his accomplishments thus far—Healthcare, START treaty, Tax-cuts, Don’t ask don’t tell etc..
In short, it was a carefully planned speech, delivered in characteristic Obama style. But the oratorical impact of it was significantly diminished by the “lovey-dovey” Republican-Democrat seating arrangement. Nevertheless, the intent was to remain ambiguous, to obfuscate, and thereby continue to be flexible with wiggle room on pretty much every issue. That goal was achieved to a tee. Although President Obama is painted by the right as a big spending liberal, he did nothing like Bill Clinton who, faced with a similar situation in 1994, declared in his State of the Union address that “the era of big government was over.” On the contrary, President Obama delivered a speech which attempted to appease all constituencies without telling the country what he actually stood for or was willing to fight for—the hallmark of a truly savvy, career politician.
America is all about being positive, optimistic, and exuding the perennial can-do spirit, even in the worst of times. Unfortunately, over the years, this otherwise noteworthy trait has devolved into one of sugar-coating and outright delusion about the reality. No President aspiring for re-election can ever stand up before the country and deliver news such as, “We are screwed. We need to do something drastic or we are dead.” To their credit, the Republican and the Tea party Express responses did precisely that, but they had nothing to offer besides tax cuts for the rich. Those on the left deeply believe that the government must significantly increase spending. But this has to come at the expense of an increased deficit and relies heavily on successful execution of government programs.
Ultimately, “the nation that put cars in driveways and computers in offices; the nation of Edison and the Wright brothers; of Google and Facebook” simply can’t agree on the future course of action to rectify the current mess it finds itself in. So as America muddles along from issue to issue, legislation to legislation, crisis to crisis, bickering over tax-cut versus spending, from one state of the union to the next, questions about America’s future continue to persist.
2 thoughts on “State of the Union: President Obama Covers All Bases”
Nice commentary Pran. Look up “social choice theory” on wikipedia. It essentially states that there can be no decision made by consensus that will satisfy everybody “adequately”.
Politicians just have to make bets on what they believe. Some do it for self interest and some try to do it for building long term value.
I hope Obama picks the later. He has to do this dance to stay for 4 more years, and then he will have a opportunity to risk his career, if needed to do the right thing.
We can only wait and watch.
Thanks Raman. Social choice theory — sounds like the opposite of Wisdom of Crowds. (you should look that up. There is a nice book with the same title. Regarding betting on what they believe — its good as long as they believe in something besides simply getting elected.
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