Reaction to the State of the Union Address

The history of great American leadership is the history of those who dare to act boldly, to shun old ways of doing things, and who look forward with optimism and hope for a better tomorrow. My biggest criticism of most Presidents is not ideological. My measure of a Presidency is the capacity to not only think big but act boldly to achieve our nation’s potential.

This speech, in some ways, achieved a good deal. To me, it echoed themes found in Kennedy’s New Frontier. President Obama challenged us to win the future through innovation and entrepreneurship. He challenged us to invest in alternative energy and in our schools.  He reminded us of the Barack Obama we all saw in 2004 when he said that we are not a nation of red states and blue states, that we are the United States of America.

It was all the gauzy talk that always has my liberal knees-a-quivering. I was proud when he called on young people to become teachers saying that our nation needs them.  He suggested that we need fair immigration reform. He helped restore the rightful place of science as something exciting and important in our society. These are big and important ideas, and I am glad he spoke vaguely enough about them to allow the particulars to be decided later. President Obama challenged us with real goals, one of which captured my imagination: 80% clean energy by 2035.

It was great. But I find it unfortunate that the credibility of his main argument — that we need to think big to win the future by investing in science and education — is diminished by his assertion that we can do it all without adding to the deficit or increasing domestic spending in the short term.

It felt like the speech had something for everybody. Strategically, it was a great choice to remind liberals that he will fight against oil companies and for small business innovation and remind conservatives that he’s their president, too. He’ll fight for education and infrastructure and believes that government has a role to play at all levels of our society. He deftly moved on from the debate over healthcare by saying that he wants to fix any problems in the legislation, and improve on it to cut costs and increase quality, but refused to go backwards. That is a good move: make new reforms the status quo as quickly as possible in order to make it harder to take away. Pivoting to the right, the President wrapped himself in deficit-hawk cushions to shield him from the hammers of the far-right by calling for a spending freeze, yet also called for a restructuring of our government and simplification of our tax code. And he threw in medical malpractice, because it’s a good way to play nice with Republicans.

But, to make this address truly great, he had to answer some questions. For one, how can we invest in major infrastructure improvements without increasing domestic spending? Why are earmarks bad, other than they are the scape goat du jour? (This has always been a pet peeve of mine. Earmarks are simply the way Congress says, use this money for this project. Would we have a Congress send a transportation bill to the President for billions of dollars without having any input as to which projects the bill will go towards? Congresspeople often know the needs of their district better than the rest of the federal government and can push for good projects. They bring home the bacon, sure, but they also know when a project is really necessary.)

Moreover, while the Race to the Top program is a good way to start investing in accountability, I am not convinced it is the best way to innovate. It often continues us on the path of simply forcing standardized metrics across the board. How will Race to the Top really change our educational system, and what besides that does he have in mind?

He also failed to address any issues of gun control in the wake of the Tuscon shooting. He failed to address any issues of poverty in America outside of education.

And he implicitly failed to defend his own stimulus plan. I say that because this was a speech aimed at cutting the deficit. Yet one reason our deficit has increased in the last few years is that we needed to invest in stimulus programs that saved our economy from a Depression. To simply attack deficits as always bad misses the whole point of how he was able to pull off one of his biggest achievements, and it reinforces conservative narratives. It’s not a bad thing that we primed the pump and spent $787 billion on a stimulus, plus gave tax breaks to the middle class. But that costs a lot of money.

Finally, it was clearly a more moderate speech, and that’s fine with me, even as a die-hard progressive. This speech was geared towards rallying our base (teachers, Latinos, geeks, youths looking to be inspired a la JFK) while reaching out to moderates who will not vote D all the time. And it pressured Republicans to work with him. That’s all he had to achieve, but he also called for a return to American curiosity and innovation. Well done.

One last thing. I do not now, and never will, care where members of Congress sit or who they sit next to; I only care where they stand on the issues and what they are willing to fight for.

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January 26, 2011. Uncategorized.

2 Comments

  1. Joanna replied:

    As one of those geeks you referred to, I was energized by the President’s affirmation of science in society…and the declaration to regard science fair winners with the same admiration as sport figures gave me a warm and tingly feeling.

    I agree with your concerns about the funds and the details. But more than anything, State of the Union addresses are a moment for uplifting rhetoric. For a short while, the hyperbole that usually fills the sound waves is replaced with grand ideas.

    It’s been awhile since the words of my representatives have been able to move me. Last night, I discovered they still can and that’s really all I needed.

  2. Tom Murdock replied:

    I enjoyed reading your comments, but I am concerned about the move toward spending more money without making the very hard priority decisions.

    As a teacher in the Boston Public School system, I see needs, but I also see waste – $75 million per year for busing comes to mind.

    I too am liberal, but I am convinced that unless the liberals stand for rational and priority-based spending, we will be left by the edge of the road bewildered and upset wihout seeing movement toward a better economy and resulting lifestyles for our most needy.

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