Inside Obama's State of the Union speech 

I know I’m weighing in late—in the old days of journalism this would have been early!—but I want to make a few points about Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech which I haven’t seen elsewhere.

Bows to labor unions. In saluting the resilience of the American people, Obama specifically mentioned people “building cars and teaching kids”—both heavily unionized occupations. And his administration has been pouring money into them, through the General Motors and Chrysler bailouts and through the one-third of the 2009 stimulus package that went to state and local governments. Obama not only pays off his political debts, he gives his paymasters some psychic reward as well.  

Where is the “jobs bill”? Obama’s jobs proposals look like pretty small beer. He called for government spending on infrastructure and “clean energy products,” but stopped short of endorsing the national infrastructure bank backed by smart Democrats like Brookings’s William Galston. He also called for a National Export Initiative to double exports in five years; just how that would be done he didn’t say and is, to put it politely, unclear. How can government do this? And, as Ira Stoll has pointed out, a five-year program has unfortunate echoes of Stalin’s five-year plans.   

He kept boosting the House over the Senate. He commended the House for passing a “jobs bill,” for passing “financial reform,” for passing “a comprehensive energy and climate bill” (no mention of cap-and-trade) and for passing a community colleges bill. Later he said, “The confirmation of well-qualified public servants should not be held hostage to the pet projects or grudges of a few individual senators.” I see this homage to the House as an attempt to generate applause; there were more than four times as many House members as senators in the House chamber.

Remember the old Tip O’Neill story: after an aide referred to the House Republicans as “the enemy,” O’Neill corrected him. “The House Republicans are not the enemy, they’re the opposition. The Senate is the enemy.” The problem here is that boosting the House is in tension with Obama’s calls for bipartisanship. The House operates in a very partisan manner, for institutional reasons; House Republicans have not been consulted in any way on the substance of legislation by the House Democratic leadership. (The House Republican leadership operated this way as well when it held the majority.) And at least one senator took umbrage. “I thought he was pointing his finger at the Senate a lot in his speech last night,” said Senator Mary Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana. “No, I do not think it’s fair.” Obama needs all the Senate votes he can get, especially from moderate Democrats like Landrieu, and he went out of his way to antagonize them, in search of cheap applause.  

The Christmas bomber. Obama seemed to acknowledge the government’s failure to anticipate the Christmas bomber. “We are filling unacceptable gaps revealed by the failed Christmas attack with better airline security and swifter action on our intelligence.” But a few sentences earlier he seemed to indicate that he found nothing wrong in the decision to put him into the civilian criminal justice system. “Let’s reject the false choice between protecting our people and upholding our values.” Translation into English: 50 minutes of interrogation of a captured terrorist by FBI agents who happened to be on duty Christmas Day in Michigan, and who have no knowledge of terrorism networks, is enough. How many Americans agree?  

Bones to the left. Obama’s brief discussion of Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran was carefully framed to be consistent with his dovish campaign rhetoric on those subjects. No mention of victory in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead the focus was on getting our troops out—as if the only reason we dispatch troops is to withdraw them.  He did give a bow to at least some of the Iranians seeking freedom.—“we support the human rights of the women marching in the streets of Iran”—though perhaps he could have hailed the men marching too, and in stronger terms.

Possible reset I: energy. Obama did not signal a pivot to the center, as the Massachusetts result seemed to dictate, on many issues. But he did call for “a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country” (his pal Bill Ayers’s father, as CEO of Commonwealth Edison, built lots of nuclear plants in Illinois that haven’t blown up), for “tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas” (after reinstating the ban on offshore drilling lifted by the Bush administration) and for “continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies” (after his vice president said on the 2008 campaign trail that we wouldn’t build any more coal-fired power plants).  

Possible reset II: trade. “We will continue to shape a Doha trade agreement that opens global markets” and “will strengthen our trade relations with Asia and with key partners like South Korea, Panama and Colombia.” This sounds like a call for the Democratic Congress to approve the pending Free Trade Agreements with those three countries which labor unions and most Democrats have opposed.  

Health care. Obama seemed not to change his stand on health care at all, though it’s obvious that the Democratic bills are not going anywhere. He just reiterated the arguments which have proved unpersuasive to most voters, even in Massachusetts. There was only tepid applause when he said “we still need health insurance reform” and there was eerie silence when he said “we are closer than ever” to passing a bill. It brings to mind the old saying, never mention rope in the house of a man who has been hanged.  

Immigration. Supporters of comprehensive immigration reform hoped that Obama, having downplayed the issue in 2009, would raise it in 2010. He did, but only barely, in a single sentence. “And we should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system—to secure our borders, enforce our laws and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and our nation.” That’s pretty limp as an endorsement of proposals to legalize illegal immigrants. Prediction: Congress will not make any major effort on immigration this year, as it did in 2006 and 2007. Democrats can’t pass a bill by themselves, and there is no Senate Republican primed to take the lead role on the bipartisan legislation that John McCain took in 2006 and Jon Kyl in 2007.

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Michael Barone

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