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No-bend Obama

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

We've now had several tests of President Obama's ideological flexibility, proving him as supple and pliant as a hard pretzel. Following the elections of Republican Govs. Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell in 2009, the president was dismissive. Following the election of Scott Brown to Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat in 2010, Obama was defiant. Following the largest pickups for Republicans in the House since 1938, Obama has remained in character.

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The 2011 State of the Union address was tonally accommodating and ideologically unbending.

There were, in fairness, some concessions to reality. Obama, by conspicuous omission, recognized that there will be no cap-and-trade system to regulate carbon emissions and no quick closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison (where the administration now seems resigned to resuming military tribunals). But other elements of his outreach - promoting teacher quality or reviewing federal regulations - were both minor and predictable.

And when it came to his governing philosophy, Obama shifted arguments without retreating an ideological inch.

Many Republicans interpret their November victory as the public recognition of a fiscal emergency, requiring a fundamental change in the size and role of government. The alternative, they argue, at least eventually, is a sovereign debt crisis, an inflated currency, a sick and stagnant economy, and accelerated national decline.

On the evidence of his speech, Obama believes no such thing. While he de-emphasized the role of stimulus spending in creating public-sector jobs, he defined an active role for government in catalyzing the private sector - including new spending on infrastructure, scientific research and education. This agenda is hardly new; it has been a mainstay of presidential economic speeches for decades.

This economic approach counts advantages. It allows a president to be positive and future-oriented, as Obama was on Tuesday night. And because such long-term "investments" succeed or fail on a 10- or 20-year timeline, the political benefits for making these proposals arrive long before the measurement of their effectiveness. In his 2006 State of the Union address, which I helped write, President George W. Bush proposed a 22 percent increase in clean-energy research at the Energy Department, a doubling of basic research in the physical sciences and the training of 70,000 high school teachers to instruct Advanced Placement courses in math and science. I have no idea if these "investments" passed or made much difference. I doubt anyone knows.

In his address, Obama spent much of his time rallying America to compete with China; he did much less to indicate how America will avoid the fate of Greece. There were no unexpected or breakthrough deficit-reduction ideas. His five-year spending freeze proposal rehashed last year's three-year spending freeze proposal. His millionaire tax hike has been a standby since the 2008 Democratic primary season. He distanced himself from the recommendations of his own deficit-reduction commission. His mentions of Medicare and Social Security were purposely vague - essentially daring Republicans to make the first move.

This timidity on deficits is actually a measure of the president's political confidence. He is calculating that American anger about deficits and debt has mellowed since November, and he is probably right. If Obama had given a speech the week after the November election setting the goal of giving "80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail," he would have been greeted with laughter and seen as disconnected from political reality. This week, the proposal was received with nods or yawns.

Without doubt, it is easier to communicate Obama's agenda than it is to make the Republican case. Obama's campaign speeches write themselves. Just imagine: "If we can send a man to the moon, why can't we bring Twitter within reach of every disadvantaged child? If the Wright brothers could touch the sky, why can't we have more iPads per capita than the South Koreans? The naysayers will say 'nay.' But this is America. . . ." Any focus group facilitator will tell you that the dials go up with words such as "investment" and "competitiveness" - or "daffodils" and "lollipops" - and down with words such as "debt," "crisis" and "bankruptcy." Who is going to object, as the president promised, to improved cellphone coverage? Who is going to cheer the dour, downbeat call for entitlement reform?

But the main issue here does not concern political advantage. Ultimately, it only matters who is right. If the threat of debt is exaggerated - if it is merely fear-mongering - then Obama's State of the Union strategy makes sense. If the threat is real, Obama, like many politicians before him, is being irresponsible.

michaelgerson@washpost.com


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