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State of the Union: Sound bites and olive branches

Michael O'Hare, professor of public policy | January 26, 2011

A State of the Union address in a presidential system is always an odd affair, more so when the president’s party doesn’t control the legislature. Nothing the president says has any real formal status: he’s not laying legislation on the table, and not issuing executive orders, but trying to do a bunch of political, inspirational, base-cheering, opponent-challenging, reassuring, and Al Qaeda-scaring things all at once. Tall order!

This one was unexceptional: a few sound bites of little real consequence (no earmarks! spending freeze!); a couple of gaffes (how did the crashing airplane stay past the second draft? And whose brilliant idea was a slogan whose initials are WTF?); an olive branch or two for the Republicans; and a strong defense of a couple of important positions. I hope tax simplification can accrete support, but we know that every piece of junk in the tax code is there because it left a lot of money in the pocket of somebody and only cost the rest of us a tiny bit each. The somebodies fight very hard for them, and out of sight. We have cleaned up the tax code a little in the past, so it’s not impossible, but I doubt it’s manageable in the current climate of spite and railing at the winds.

Especially with the Republicans in such a pickle, caught among their fatal demographics, an increasingly lunatic base they can’t ignore as independents drift away, and, um, reality. The response speech by Ryan was flat and vacuous, and the response speech by poor Bachmann was bizarre even beyond its existence at all, and its content, which veered between mendacious and silly. She faced the wrong camera throughout, so she’s looking over the viewer’s left shoulder, even on the teapartyexpress site (where her speech is cut off before the end!). Her eye makeup was inexplicable, too. Well, it’s always good for the staff to have a learning experience; on to Iowa.

It seems picky to complain about what’s not in a State of the Union address, but sometimes silence is deafening and the speech was more than an hour long. My list of troubling omissions is:

(1) After the warmest decade ever, which included the warmest two years ever, a swipe at oil company subsidies (good) and a hat tip to “clean energy” (vague) is a near-complete surrender on climate.

(2) Housing? Defaults? Foreclosures?

(3) Arts and culture. I think government has some real heavy lifting to do in this area, mostly having to do with building a set of rules for digital media, which is now most media, that allow a workable business model not only for music and video but also all text (newspapers!). I’m not aware that the administration has anything in its pocket here, so I understand not bringing it up. Otherwise, I don’t see a need for a big promotion or catch-up program from the government.

However, Obama went on at some length about improving education and doing more of it, and every angle he came at it from was about vocational education, training to do paid work (mostly hi-tech work). Nothing wrong with that except that there’s no point in being richer if life isn’t worth living, and our current national obsession with education as job training has driven a lot of Really Important Stuff out of the classroom, from K-12 right through college. The all-engineering, all-the-time Sputnik II framing of education needed to be a lot more balanced.

(4) Income distribution. It’s absurdly, inexcusably unequal and getting worse, and that’s very bad for the country. The issue deserved more than his demand to put top income rates back up.