by Sydney Williams
The President was “defiant” wrote the New York Times; “defiantly liberal,” claimed the Financial Times. “It was an ungracious speech,” editorialized the latter. Despite setting a record, since becoming President, for the greatest number of Party-seat losses in the post-War period (14 Senate seats, 69 House seats and 913 seats in state legislatures), the President was unapologetic. With constant usage of the pronoun “I”, and with quoting himself, his ego was on full display.
Mr. Obama urged civility, yet he remained supercilious. When he said, “I have no more campaigns to run,” there was a smattering of Republican applause (allegedly derisive).
Mr. Obama immediately rejoined: “I know, because I won both of them.” This master of fundraising then criticized “constant fundraising.” When will we learn?
The President talks of the need to help the middle class, yet his policies have benefitted the wealthy and have negatively impacted lower and middle income families, especially African-Americans and Hispanics. Keep in mind, Mr. Obama has been President for six years. His Party has controlled the Senate during all those years, and the House for two. The median net worth of upper income families (families of four with median incomes of $132,000) is seven times that of middle income families (families of four with median incomes of $44,000), the widest spread in 30 years. The spread in net worth between the wealthy and the poorest, at seventy times is also the highest in 30 years. During Mr. Obama’s Presidency – from the trough of the recession – to the end of 2013, household net worth has risen just over 30%, according to data from the Federal Reserve, while President Obama’s net worth is up more than 400% – 438% according to International Business Times; more than that, according to Wikipedia. Who has been the winner?
While unemployment has declined, wages have been stagnant and labor force participation remains at the lowest level since the late 1970s. If the labor force participation were at the level it was when he took office, unemployment would be closer to 10 percent. For the first time in thirty-five years American businesses are closing faster than new ones are being created. Yet the President declaimed, off-script: “This is good news, people.” He went on: “The verdict is clear – middle class economies work…and those policies will continue to work as long as politics don’t get in the way.” Is democracy possible without politics? Just who have his policies benefitted? “Fool me once,” the old saying goes, “shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
The State of the Union has become Hollywoodish. It appeals to special interests. It is designed to generate applause. ‘States of the Union’ have become shout-outs to favored constituencies. They are not about serious policy. Mr. Obama’s speech on Tuesday was no different; though he is a gifted speaker, with unusually good writers. His was a litany of partisan wishes that will not be realized, and he vowed to make use of his veto. The speech had none of the graciousness of George Bush in 2007 when he congratulated Democrats on their victories in 2006.
Nevertheless, the State of the Union is august. It is performed in the well of the House and is heard around the world. It is characterized by pomp and circumstances, yet it symbolizes American democracy. It notes our differences, but shows our unity – that from diverse opinions a single government arose. Mr. Obama is not alone in using this podium to portray partisanship, while claiming to disabuse it. ‘States of the Unions’ have come to express fundamental differences between the Left and the Right. Mr. Obama claims his “Robin Hood” approach demarks the path to equality; those on the Right see it as the “Road to Serfdom.” When one panders to his disciples there is little that is conciliatory, other than the usual sanctimonious pablum of claiming the desire to work with “the other side.” Ideology rantings have replaced policy debates.
Most of what the President proposed had been floated earlier – universal childcare, guaranteed-paid seven days of sick leave, the strengthening of unions, ensuring lower mortgage premiums and higher minimum wages, the complete shutting down of GTMO, normalizing relations with Cuba, raising taxes on capital gains and dividends, sending a man to Mars and lowering the expense of community college to zero. (But the latter would eliminate 529 savings accounts used by twelve million families!) With a bone to unions, he urged Congress to pass legislation that would grant him “trade protection authority to protect American workers.” That I had not heard before. Believers in free trade may not be surprised, but should be fore-warned.
He touched all the hot spots of the Left – man-caused climate change, the excessive use of police force and the rights of gays and transgenders. He advocated for illegal immigrants. As regards Iran, he claimed, “We’ve halted the progress of its nuclear program” – a statement that caused Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) to later say the comment sounded “straight out of Tehran.” Nothing was said about the anti-Semitism that is rising in Europe, or of the heroism of the Israelis who are confronted daily with Islamic threats. No hashtags were forthcoming for the thousands of young girls gone missing in Nigeria. No amber lights were flashed about our fiscal fragility, a consequence of recklessly promised government health and retirement benefits. Nothing was said of the importance of family in fighting poverty and crime.
Monumental problems confront the country and the free world. We must navigate the treacherous waters between the Scylla of financial retirement promises to government workers and the Charybdis that higher taxes would have on disincentivizing the private sector. Christianity, like Judaism, is under attack in the Middle East and North Africa. Globally, Islamic terrorism menaces Western civilization, as has been seen recently in Ottawa, Sydney, Paris, Brussels and this past weekend in Israel. A system of de facto Apartheid exists in countries like France, with the failure of Muslims to integrate. Yet, the President refuses to refer to the current bout of terrorism that threatens the West as Islamic based. China is pursuing aggressive policies in the South and East China Seas, home to a third of world trade. Mr. Obama should heed George Orwell: “Sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious.”
Listening to President Obama’s speech, one was reminded of Margeret Heffernan’s admonition in Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious: “We could know, and should know, but don’t because it makes us feel better not to know.”