Pearlstein: The State of the Union speech you won't hear

Steven Pearlstein
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, January 27, 2010; 11:00 AM

Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein was online Wednesday, January 27 at 11:00 a.m. ET to discuss Obama's upcoming State of the Union address and why Washington is just as bad as Wall Street.

Pearlstein won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 and is co-moderator of the On Leadership discussion site.

Read today's column: The State of the Union speech you won't hear.

A transcript follows.


Annandale, Va.: Your column was right on. Seems to me that the President and Congress can't separate politics from governing and the media condones this by emphasizing partisanship over discussion and compromise. Your thoughts?

Steven Pearlstein: There is a tendency in the media, as in politics, to view compromise as a partial loss, a concession, a negative. Actually, sometimes it is better policy. In general, the media tends to cover policy discussions like it covers sports, which is about winning and losing. It is not a good prism through which to look at most issues.


Bethesda, Md.: Steven, I wish President Obama did a cut and paste of your column to his speech. I really do. I am a strong supporter of his Presidency, but I continuously wonder what we, as U.S. citizens, can do to end the partisan politics, to reject the bags of lies that all U.S. representatives, journalists, Wall Street robbers, dishonest CEOs, and other power grabbers give the general public.

Steven Pearlstein: It is generally believed among elites, including political elites and the people who run campaigns and work in the White House, that you can't really tell the truth in politics because the people don't want to hear the truth and they will punish you. It is true that on any issue, there will be some people who will get mad and punish you and they will make a lot of noise that will get a lot of attention in the media. But over the long run, I think it is generally a good political strategy that wins you a lot of support and loyalty with independent swing voters. It also brings new voters into the process, so you can change the composition of the electorate.


New Jersey: I thought your column was good but you pulled your punches.

Do you really think that partisanship is the problem with Congress? The ideological differences are far greater in Germany or Australia and they seem to do ok.

Isn't the problem that, as Dick Durbin put it, that the "banks own Congress?" It seems undeniable that HMOs have an effective veto over any health-care reforms, Wall St. over any financial regulation, etc. Congressmen don't work for their voters anymore, they vote for those who backed their campaigns and will provide them their jobs when they retire.

Steven Pearlstein: Two points.

First, although those systems are more partisan, they are parliamentary systems, which means that once you win the election, you get to put in your program until it gets so unpopular that the voters throw you out. Here, the Dems win the election big and they still can't put in their program because of our system of checks and balances. That calls for a different, more bipartisan dynamic with parties that are "bigger tent" parties. Only now they aren't, there is no bipartisanship and the model is broken.

As for the special interests owning the Congress, it is unfortunately true up to a point, but it isn't the whole story. The bigger story, it seems to me, is that our current crop of politicians aren't very good as politicians, they run scared too easily and do whatever it is that is that scores the best on yesterday's polls. That is true of the big issues, in any way. On small issues about which the public knows little and cares little, the special interests, of course, dominate.


Rochester, Minn.: Dear Steven,

I see the root of all evil in gerrymandering and all the hyper-partisanship that it leads to. This is highly simplified, but I cannot think of any other single thing that produces so many ill effects.

Steven Pearlstein: It is a big factor, I agree.


Mount Rainier, Md.: Mr. Pearlstein, First, that was one of your best columns, and it further proves that you, as an author, can rise above when you want to. I"d like to see more of this, if you please.

Now on to the question - given that the President won't give this speech tonight, from an economic perspective what can he give us that is 1)innovative; 2) realistic; and 3) sincere enough to actually be accomplished?

Steven Pearlstein: Thanks for the compliment. Not sure I can answer your question, however. I've written lots of columns that have suggestions of policies that are innovative and politically realistic -- things like the transaction tax or greater emphasis on investment or reform of the corporate income tax or an idea for spurring on mortgage modifications. But the White House draws its ideas from a relatively small circle of former Clinton aides, Washington policy wonks and special interest groups. What matters with them is who you are, not what your ideas are. That's unfortunate, but it was sort of baked into the cake by the composition of the economic team.


Fort Worth, Tex.: Steven, Personally, I have to say that the gridlock in Washington is wonderful. Most of the time when people ask things of the government (especially the feds) they are merely asking "can't someone else do it?" I'm all for certain roles for government (and what a kick if they were plainly laid out in some sort of foundational document!) but if we start to realize that Washington can't get things done, maybe we'll start to tackle the problems ourselves at the state, county, local, or even private levels.

Diverging slightly, please don't say that health care needs to be national in scope in order to work. Most European countries are smaller than some of our larger states. If the states can run a program (like Romneycare), then let them!

Steven Pearlstein: It's a nice thought that every state would do its version of the Massachusetts health plan. Laboratories of experimentation and all that FDR good stuff. But inasmuch as you come from Texas, I think you might understand the limitation of that. The other problem is that if one state takes the initiative and comes up with a good health plan, it runs the risk that it will attract all the sick people from all the other states that are not as responsible, and you will get a race to the bottom.


Feeling Emotional about America (Exclaimation Point): As an American living overseas, your column bemoaning a loss of institutional integrity cut me like a knife! But you also mention the real source of our ills: Americans' polarization. We have gotten the government we deserve from our lack of civility and our stubborn refusal to even see, let alone appreciate, others' points of view.

What is the true source of our polarization?

As with any crisis, this could be a great opportunity! Our chance to diagnose, and make a true course correction based on realizing we have made a wrong turn. (May I blame cable news shows? Because I really want to.)

Steven Pearlstein: You may, although cable news is as much a symptom as a accelerator of the trend. The answer to this problem is very simple: leadership. It requires elected leaders who are more interested in doing the right thing and acting as statesman than they are in playing political games designed to win the next election. Why they want to win the next election so much is hard to understand since once they win, they have so poisoned the well that they can't, in fact, do much with their power. So we've really played this game out to the point that there is a very stable but very unsatisfying equilibrium. The only way to break out of it is to change the game by having leaders who are willing to play a different game and an electorate that is so fed up they are willing to support such leaders. I think that was what Obama and his election were all about. He, and we, seem to have forgotten that, however. Tonight's speech would be an ideal time to remind us.


Flagstaff, Ariz.: Maybe this is better submitted to Weingarten, but I woke up this morning with a new theory of how the Democrats are snatching defeat from the jaws of victory...

Harken back to high school. The jocks and the popular kids have ruled forever, and they like it that way. But here comes a group of geeks, losers and theatre people who manage to enlist the previously disenfranchised kids-- the band and chorus members, the computer club, even the kids who smoke out in back of the gym-- and they win the big election! Suddenly they have the senior class president and the student council locked up!

And guess what-- the popular kids and jocks don't care, don't notice, and just keep like acting like they're in charge. And sure enough, after a little celebration and thinking things might change, the other kids go right back to acting like losers.

This is what is happening in Washington feels like to me. It's not Wall Street, it's high school all over again.

Steven Pearlstein: My friend Evan Thomas of Newsweek has exactly this view on most of the things that happen in Washington-- that life is like high school And I think it is a very useful metaphor as you've played it out here. The problem is that the geeks and band members really want to go back and write software and play concerti and not spend all their time on student government, which means that the system reverts to the jocks and the cool kids.


Philadelphia, Pa.: I don't disagree with a thing in your column. I would also say that in the realm of things that can't be said, are a slew of criticisms of 70% of the American public. It's the 70% that is woefully or willfully misinformed every time we turn around (on both sides of the debate). The 70% in denial about the origins of the planet and species in general. The 70% who believed years after 9/11 that Saddam Hussein was responsible. The 70% who think today that the Senate HCR bill offers nothing but payoffs for back room deals (not that they aren't in there, but there's a tremendous amount more). Let's not forget the 40% who thought 9/11 was an inside job. And the 70% who like to fixate and get angry about our decline but who don't practice the basic lifestyle and hold the basic values to turn around our decline -- education, hard work, selflessness, belief in the common good, belief in helping the next generation have it better, ability to change, ability to think skeptically but not cynically, productive thrift, familial stability, waste not want not, value time over money and people over things...

I'm not angry at where we are. I see our current state as the natural result of what we've wanted to believe for the last 30 years -- that we could get something for nothing, that identifying and solving problems meant that we weren't sufficiently patriotic.

Obama said in his inaugural that -- quoting gospel -- we need to leave childish things behind. By and large, he's been an adult for the last year. He's an unbelievably good role model for the values we need to thrive. More and more, he's been the only one. His failure has been in not leading us sufficiently into adulthood -- to impact and convince us of the need to change. That's his challenge in year two, and beyond.

Steven Pearlstein: Very very well put, my friend from the City of Brotherly Love.


Lapsed Reader: Hi Steve, Long time no write. Many of us stated repeatedly that it would have been better to take a direct stake in the banks that were bailed out. Even more drastically, we stated that it would have been better to bail out the house owners/mortgagees. Nobody listed to us and here we at at 10% unemployment and bankers still at the trough as if it is still 1999. What say you?

Steven Pearlstein: We would have still been at 10 percent unemployment, because that is mostly a reflection of the fact that we had a bubble economy that had to be cut back to a sustainable size before moving forward. The 10 percent unemployment is a reflection of that process of cutting back on capacity that was unsustainable -- reducing the number of hotel rooms and retail outlets and car factories, etc. Only then can resources (people, capital) be redeployed to their next highest and best use. And in the process, you also depress a lot of people's incomes and force reductions in their paper wealth as the true value of their labor and their assets becomes apparent in a post-bubble world.


Prescott, Ariz.: Hi Mr. Pearlstein. The biggest murmurs coming out of the State of Union are that Obama will freeze some part of the Federal Budget. I was reading about the bipartisan deficit commission proposal that failed to pass yesterday, and six, yes six Republican Senators who co-sponsored the bill voted against it (McCain, InHofe, Hutchison, Ensign, Crapo, and Brownback). Ye Gods. McCain, who is my senator, told Politico he voted against it because it might have the ability to raise taxes. No. Kidding. Ye Gods. I'm not a fan of the commission idea (I have this weird notion that Congress should do its damn job and manage the budget), but how can we solve any problems when our legislators can pull stuff like this and there doesn't seem to be any real demand from the electorate, press, etc. for responsibility and consequences?

Steven Pearlstein: When I saw that list, I also got so depressed that I wrote that column (I had been planning to write on something else, actually). It is just really disgusting. You are right that we really shouldn't need a commission -- that is really Congress's job. But if they won't do it -- and we have a decade of experience that tells us they won't -- then at least have another group come up with an idea and let Congress have the choice of either accepting it or rejecting it BY MAJORITY VOTE. What's interesting is that both sides (the Republican anti-taxers and the Democrats who loathe the idea of cuts to entitlements) are so afraid that a rational process will come out against them that they insist on preserving the unsustainable status quo and the right to demand a supermajority vote in the Senate. If they were really confident of the rightness of their position (as opposed to protecting selfish special interests or cherished ideologies), they would embrace the ide aof a blue ribbon commission. But they know what a blue ribbon commission would say -- you have to raise taxes AND cut entitlements.


Alexandria, Va.: Dear Mr. Pearlstein,

Of the dysfunctional institutions you mention in today's fine column, do you consider the U.S. Senate to be a tad more so than the others?

What do you make of calling a Constitutional Convention in the United States? What conditions do you believe might make doing so appropriate?

Thank you.

Steven Pearlstein: The Senate is the big problem. But we don't need a constitutional convention. The constitution already says that the House and Senate should set their own rules. But this provision of the Constitituion has been overturned by a Senate rule that says that the Senate is somehow a continuing body and that a newly elected Senate cannot write its own rules BY MAJORITY VOTE. All it would require to put things right is for Vice President Joe Biden to rule, at the beginning of the next Congress, that the first order of business in the Senate is to adopt new rules, since the rules of the last Congress cannot be forced onto a new Congress. Once that happens, the new Congress could adopt rules that don't allow the minority to bring everything to a halt simply by threatening a filibuster. You could still allow filibusters if people wanted to debate and debate and debate on major pieces of legislation. But they couldn't use the filibuster on procedural motions, which is the reason that the Senate has become an anti-democratic, anti-majoritarian institution.


Silver Spring, Md.: With highly influential Denver-based billionaire Philip Anschutz owning Ticketmaster, Live Nation, AEG Live, the Staples Center and several other concert venues worldwide, including the O2 Arena, what difference does the merger make except that a greedy billionaire will get more money? Help. What's up with that?

Steven Pearlstein: THAT was the subject I was going to write about. Look for a column Friday or next week.


Alexandria, Va.: Great column. Where I come from, a speech like that is referred to as "calling BS" on someone, especially on Congress and voters. Do they really mean what they say and want what they claim, or is it all part of a political game? Where is the Obama who campaigned on "telling the American people what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear?"

Steven Pearlstein: It's a game. Trust me. They know it. And they keep playing it.


Colorado: I like your State of the Union address. I'd vote for you.

Sadly, it seems that even local politics (at least here in CO) is becoming full of partisan rhetoric. We can't come up with any solutions if we keep redefining the facts.

Steven Pearlstein: Sorry to hear that. Colorado has recently had a string of rather responsible centrist politicians at the federal and governor's level. Don't give up -- the voters may do the right thing again.


Bethesda, Md.: You "state of the union" column is excellent and substantively correct, but it has a big hole. If the political system has been captured by corporate interests, then how is it fixable? Your substantive reforms would never be enacted or maintained by our corrupt system.

Steven Pearlstein: It's not just corporate interests, I'm afraid. There are also gun nut interests and labor interests and senior citizens interests.


The Truth?: Steve, I think American voters WANT someone to be straight up and tell them the truth, even if it hurts. That's called leadership--being willing to take the road that's not so popular (but is necessary). Just MHO, but I think people were really deep down WANTING Obama to give them the truth, no matter how hard it hurts, and then give us goals we can then work toward to better the situation. Americans are best when we have a problem(s) we can rally around and defeat, rather than just defeating each other. I voted for Obama and I'm not giving up the ship, but, I am disappointed he isn't calling us to that "higher ground" that I (and others, I think) thought he would.

Steven Pearlstein: You're not alone in that. Maybe somebody ought to tell that to Rahm and Ax.


Seattle, Wash.: I hope you're happy. After reading your column, I have lost interest in watching the State of the Union. Unless Obama would give something like that, calling down bad actors, irresponsible behavior, etc, I just don't see the point.

Steven Pearlstein: Well, consider yourself lucky. The speech comes on at 6 PM your time, which means it will be over early and you can still watch Friday Night Lights on DirecTV, the best show on television.


Southeast D.C.: Almost all of the major provisions in the Senate HCR bill have greater than 50% support in the public, but the public doesn't support the bill. Why?

General voter dissatisfaction? Misinformation? Poor communication of what actually in bill? Disgruntlement with back-room deals (like Nelson's)? Or is America just the land of cognitive dissonance?

Steven Pearlstein: A lot of misinformation and distortion on the part of Republicans and other opponents. Not any more complicated than that.


Ellicott City, Md.: Thank you for another thoughtful column. I am deeply disappointed in this President's performance. He seems to be led around by a small band of too clever by half partisans whose dealmaking and pettiness have eroded his ability to lead. At this juncture, who could support a bill that does special favors for folks in Louisiana and Nebraska? Isn't this type of tactic exactly the opposite of what candidate Obama stood for? Sadly, on the other side, we have individuals like Boehner and McConnell, who found it just fine to vote for unfunded health care benefits under Medicare back in 2003 (PL 101-173) but now rant on endlessly about the deficit and big government. It's little wonder that that public is furious. This isn't "Washington"'s the serious character flaws in the people sent here from around the country.

Steven Pearlstein: Serious character flaw, as in they would rather poison the well and prevent the government from solving problems so they can score cheap political points and hope to win the next election.


Bethesda, Md.: I once worked for one of the nation's largest trade associations. It was a shock to me how uninterested they were in the security and health of the U.S. compared to success in winning in the profit fight between the railroads, the truckers, the water carriers etc. There was almost no concern about political parties, only which committees of Congress they controlled--- Economic politics as a blood sport often is hidden from the public. Have we become a more corrupt country and we are afraid to admit it.?

Steven Pearlstein: You've got that right.


Arlington, Va.: There seems to be frustration at an ineffective Dem majority that passed up a chance of a lifetime.

The Mass. voters understand that a $1T bill is not deficit neutral. Nobody was ever going to cut $500B from Medicare. Costs were going to rise to cover the uninsured. There is no way to support deficit reduction and mammoth bills such as health care that look more like entitlements than reform.

By the way, why won't he say in the SOTU tonite that he's going to give back the $500B in unspent stimulus?

Steven Pearlstein: Well, if you want to postulate that nobody can ever cut the growth in Medicare spending, then you are essentially postulating that the government is going to go bankrupt and there is nothing any human being can or will do about it. Now that's rather defeatist, don't you think? Would you have us raise taxes by that amount instead? Judging from your tone, I rather doubt it.


Portsmouth, N.H.: Oh, you are so right. Unfortunately, part of our problem is the post-Watergate Catch-22 of political media coverage: instead of catching the truly crooked, the 24/7 news cycle eventually catches everyone, which means that good but imperfect people don't want public office because they don't really want to spend a lifetime defending themselves (or worse, their kids) from trivial criticism. It's easier to take that tenured professorship or cushy CEO job and maintain your privacy. So those who remain in politics are largely the blindly ambitious and the blandly incompetent.

When I was younger, I used to believe that "the personal is the political." Now, I think that sometimes, the personal is just the personal. I would rather have smart people who have made mistakes running the country than these sway-in-the-wind empty suits.

I don't see how any American leader can cut that Gordian knot until we have real disaster. Do you think that's too pessimistic?

Steven Pearlstein: A bit.


Anonymous: I thought your column was right on especially about the need for a carbon tax and the dysfunction on Capitol Hill. You suggest that the President submit a health-care plan to Congress reflecting the best of both bills - but will the Republicans work with him - even if his health-care proposal is very reasonable and includes some of their ideas - or are they determined to kill health care - no matter what?

Steven Pearlstein: I think he can get four or five Senate Republicans, including the new senator from Massachusetts, to sign on to a reasonable proposal. Whether he can get all the House or the rest of the Senate Democrats to put aside their own preferences and petty causes and come aboard -- that's another question.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Steve,

Great column today.

What do the "experts" say is the root cause of our governments inability to effectively manage/oversee the country?

It seems like the general themes are (1) the type of person that wants to be elected to office (2) the method that elections are conducted -e.g. Corporations/Special Interest Groups owning elected officials (3) Inertia of the masses.

This is overly simplified and there are many more potential causes, but if we put the 80-20 rule to work, then fixing just a few of these main causes would alleviate a significant amount of the effects.

Steven Pearlstein: I'm a big believer of the 80-20 rule and you put forward a credible hypothesis.


Hearing the Truth: I completely agree, but where has this characteristic gotten us? We like government services, but don't want to hear that we have to pay taxes to pay for them. Hasn't worked in California and it won't work here. My question is, how can we possibly function over the long term with the disconnect over our expectations and our collective reluctance to pay for it?

Steven Pearlstein: Yes, with strong, consistent leadership that is willing to expose and take on those who are intellectually dishonest. My view as a journalist is that I would never even print a comment from Mitch McConnell complaining about Democratic deficits or raising taxes until he had put on the table a credible plan for reducing the deficit through spending cuts. No plan, no publicity -- just treat him like any other political nut case. There's no sense arguing with people like that. we should expose them and then ignore them.


Baltimore, Md.: Steven: The only bipartisan vote I have seen in this Congress happened yesterday when the Senate Dems and Republicans joined hands to scuttle the idea of a commission on reducing the deficit whose recommendations would have to be accepted up or down (like the military base closings commission of some years back).

Anyone who has ever held a job or balanced a checkbook knows that we are going to have to cut spending and raise taxes to restore fiscal order to the country. But politicians of both the left and right have come to view their job primarily as doing whatever it takes to get reelected.

The obituaries in the Post, Baltimore Sun and NY Times for Republican Charles "Mac" Mathias, who represented Maryland in the Senate, showed how far we have strayed from having politicians with actual principles. Mathias would accept no campaign contributions larger than $100 and his independent spirit got him on Nixon's "enemies list." If there is anyone like Mathias in either political party today, I would like to know who it is. Here's the Post's Obit: Former U.S. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. of Maryland dies at 87

Steven Pearlstein: Boy, wouldn't the world be great if there were more Mac Mathiases. But, in fact, there used to be a Senate chock full of them when I was working there back in the mid-1970s. Today, you'd have trouble naming half a dozen who could fill his shoes. Its such a shame, a tragedy even, to see how far that institution has deteriorated.


St. Louis, Mo.: Groucho said it best: "Whatever it is, I'm against it!"

Great column.

Steven Pearlstein: Thanks. And I'd never want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member.


Rural Nebraska: Thank you for the excellent article and discussion. I greatly appreciate it even though I fear for our nation.

Steven Pearlstein: From the land of Ben Nelson! Thank you.


MBAs and PhDs: I don't know if you read David Brooks yesterday, but he had some interesting thoughts on the different kinds of elitism in the parties, and on the different ways these different elites use populism to their own ends.

My take: Republican elites (MBAs) use populism in a cynical manner. Democratic elites (PhDs) use it in a patronizing manner.

Talk me down: Is there any hope for a governing elite that just governs? (Well?)

Steven Pearlstein: Yes, a governing elite made up of BAs from state land grant colleges.


Cornwall, N.Y.: What do you think about the possibility that the current political dead lock will result in the formation of a 3rd party? I'm thinking of the liberals in this instance, since they seem to be the ones left out.

Thank you for a great article and just the stimulation to the brain.

Steven Pearlstein: I like the idea of a centrist third party, but that's the one that seems least likely.


Arlington, Va.: Your column provided me with a "yes, oh yes, oh absolutely" interval this morning. Thanks. I don't really think that it is a matter of partisanship or the lack of bipartisanship so much as a utter lack of imagination and integrity from both parties. As for health-care reform, I encourage the Democrats to let the Republican's filibuster, I encourage the Republicans to use those televised hours to put forth their own comprehensive plan, and I encourage the media to report the issues, not the contest.

Steven Pearlstein: Some of us have been waiting for the Republican health plan for 17 years. Still waiting.


New York: Dear Steve,

If one looks at the facts -- President Obama accomplished a lot in one year, with enormous obstacles and resistance from the U.S. Congress and special interests. Could anyone negotiate with these people better? When did Americans forget that anything worth achieving requires integrity and process? Whether one likes the Administration's views or not -- isn't the President a masterful and brilliant negotiator? We have real dialogue now, for the first time in forty years in Washington.

Cal Hoffman

Steven Pearlstein: That's one way to look at things, Cal, and I might have joined you a couple of weeks ago in saying that. The last few weeks around here have been ugly, really ugly, in terms of the leadership quotient.


Steven Pearlstein: That's all the time for today, folks. Great conversation. We'll pick it up again next Wednesday, I hope.


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