Last week, President Obama delivered his first State of the Union Address. Here’s a look at what he said, and what it meant.
“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?”
Obama inherited arguably the most daunting set of problems of any President in history. You can fault him for the way he’s tackled them (or not tackled them), but it’s tough to blame him for refusing to prioritize some over others, especially when many of them—the wars, the economy, our dependence on foreign oil, global climate change—are inextricably linked. Speaking of those problems he inherited…
“At the beginning of the last decade, the year 2000, America had a budget surplus of over $200 billion. By the time I took office, we had a one-year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade. Most of this was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts and an expensive prescription drug program. On top of that, the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion hole in our budget. All this was before I walked in the door.”
Some have accused Obama of using Bush as a scapegoat to distract from his Administration’s failings (astute lip-readers caught Senator John McCain telling his colleagues, “I’m not Bush…are you Bush?” during this portion of the speech). But to know where we are and where we’re headed, we have to remember where we’ve been. It may seem like the very partisanship Obama denounced, but Republicans who rubber-stamped Bush’s brazen fiscal irresponsibility and are now blasting Obama’s spending must be called on their hypocrisy.
“To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills. And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town…then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership.”
This was the high point of the speech, and one that surely made all the legislators in attendance (whether they’d spent the evening clapping their hands or sitting on them) uncomfortable. Obama’s stabs at bipartisanship have mostly fallen flat, and it’s time for him to get tough—on Republicans, sure, but also on his own fickle, fragmented party.
“We need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development. It means continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies.”
Tossing the GOP a bone is understandable, but this wasn’t the spot. Nuclear power, “clean” coal and offshore drilling are the three top items on Big Oil’s wish list. By giving them a prominent place in his remarks, Obama revealed the yawning gap between the hopes the environmental community placed on him and the reality of his policies and priorities.
“I know there have been questions about whether we can afford such changes in a tough economy. I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change. But here’s the thing—even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy-efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future.”
It’s a valid point. But the time for cajoling and placating climate change-deniers is over. The smattering of boos that greeted the line weren’t enough: Obama should have publicly shamed members of Congress—like Senator James Inhofe—who insist on burying their heads in the sand, and pulling the rest of us down with them.
“We face a deficit of trust—deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years. To close that credibility gap we have to take action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue—to end the outsized influence of lobbyists…That’s why we’ve excluded lobbyists from policymaking jobs, or seats on federal boards and commissions.”
The rhetoric doesn’t match reality: Before his Presidency was even a month old, Obama nominated William J. Lynn III, a lobbyist for major defense contractor Raytheon Inc., as his Deputy Secretary of Defense. And numerous other influence-peddlers—including Mark Patterson, a former lobbyist for Goldman Sachs and now chief of staff for Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner—have been welcomed into the Obama Administration, provided they recuse themselves from any issue that presents a potential conflict of interest. Sounds like a palatable compromise. But according to bi-partisan fact-checker PolitiFact,org, how often these recusals take place and what, if any, documentation accompanies them is unclear, because “the White House has said little about the policy.”
“We are responsibly leaving Iraq to its people. As a candidate, I promised that I would end this war, and that is what I am doing as President. We will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this August.”
Obama has started to withdraw troops from Iraq, but what he doesn’t mention is that thousands of “private security contractors” will remain indefinitely. That means even as we escalate the occupation of Afghanistan, the occupation of Iraq will continue, with less transparency and accountability.
“If there’s one thing that has unified Democrats and Republicans, and everybody in between, it’s that we all hated the bank bailout…”
An easy, aisle-spanning applause line. But considering the number of former banking industry heavyweights embedded in his Administration, it was disingenuous at best. (The sundry connections between big banks and the Obama White House are, sadly, too extensive to list here; for a thorough—and thoroughly depressing—rundown, see Matt Taibbi’s December Rolling Stone piece, “Obama’s Big Sellout.”) Obama may have “hated” the bailouts in the sense that they didn’t look good to the taxpayers who’d just put him in office, but they certainly weren’t hated by those in his inner circle who had just been—or, in some cases, were still—on the payrolls of Citigroup, Goldman Sachs et al. Which brings us to…
“I am not interested in punishing banks. I’m interested in protecting our economy…that can only happen if we guard against the same recklessness that nearly brought down our entire economy.”
And how, pray tell, will we guard against that recklessness? By handing banks massive, publicly funded bailouts crafted by current and former Wall Street insiders, looking the other way when they start giving their top executives huge bonuses and then promising not to punish them?
“We have gone from a bystander to a leader in the fight against climate change.”
Simply admitting climate change is real isn’t enough. To be a “leader” in the fight, the U.S. needed to arrive at the Copenhagen summit late last year with a robust, binding policy in place, so that we could pressure the rest of the developed world to follow suit and show the poor nations suffering climate change’s worst effects that we’re serious about addressing the issue. Instead, Washington couldn’t even enact a watered-down cap-and-trade system and the summit devolved into a farce, with world leaders flying off in their carbon-spewing jets, having gotten no closer to the drastic CO2 reductions scientists say are needed. Climate change isn’t all America’s fault, but we have been the world’s biggest greenhouse gas-emitter and we have the clout and political capital to set a strong example. The opportunity for the leadership Obama spoke of is there; whether we’ll seize it is another matter.