President Obama’s State of the Union speech was as jumbled as the seating plan on the House floor; Republicans and Democrats sat side by side, often uncomfortably, and so did the conservative and progressive ideas in Obama’s address. If the president didn’t deliver the FDR-style call for a New Deal we would have liked to hear, then at least he didn’t make the broad Reaganesque attack on government we feared. Instead he harked back to Dwight Eisenhower’s “Sputnik moment,” casting lean government and public investment as crucial to maintaining America’s competitiveness in a global economy, and as vital to our nation’s enduring mission to “win the future.”
One may bristle at the cold war rhetoric, but at a time when Republicans are portraying every penny spent on domestic programs as a threat to the Republic, Obama may have hit on the right framework for countering conservative antigovernment mania. Folded into the speech were calls for infrastructure development, high-speed rail, clean energy, education and research. After much pushback from progressives, who were worried that the White House would outline cuts to Social Security, Obama’s speech also included a robust defense of that popular program. He drew a bright line against repealing healthcare reform, and he was firm about eliminating Bush-era tax cuts for the rich.
These are good things. But Obama’s appeal to American competitiveness all too often left out the human and moral purposes for government. Why are we investing in clean energy, math and science education and new technologies? The president seemed to suggest it was to beat the Chinese (or the Indians), but he did not mention the words “climate change” or the idea that Americans have the fundamental right to an education. The president’s speech was about jobs, yes, but while he applauded renewed corporate profits, he conspicuously failed to mention unemployment even once, never mind inequality or poverty or the regulation of the financial sector or the foreclosure crisis that continues to shred the middle class. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were treated as an afterthought, instead of as major drains on taxpayer funds. And much of the speech was alarmingly vague, even by State of the Union standards.
The devil is in the details, and those will become clear in the budget process. Obama made the task of selling government investment more difficult, however, by accepting the conservative logic on the deficit, particularly when he echoed the wrongheaded idea that, like households, the government must “live within its means.” It was a missed opportunity to educate the American public about why short-term deficits are necessary to create jobs and future prosperity. Indeed, Obama’s speech was most specific when it called for a five-year freeze on domestic spending, a premature concession to Republicans, who rejected the offer anyway.
Indeed, if Representatives Paul Ryan and Michele Bachmann’s dueling responses are any indication, the GOP is still the Party of No. While Ryan fearmongered about how the national debt will lead to a Greek-style collapse, Bachmann, in a sideways speech, blamed Obama for the deficit, seemingly suggesting that deficit-spending created mass unemployment. Their extremist plans for disinvestment depend upon such myths and distortions. Debunking them may upset Washington’s orchestrated tableau of bipartisanship, but winning America’s future really does depend upon it.