President Obama’s third State of the Union address was, as expected, a transparently partisan kick-off speech for his 2012 election campaign.
The president began shamelessly by hyping the complete withdrawal of all troops from Iraq. (“For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. ”) This is an applause line for him, but his failure or unwillingness to negotiate an agreement with Iraq to keep troops present has unleashed a wave of violence, considerable angst among allies, and cheers in Tehran.
After an easy applause line for killing Osama bin Laden, Obama then plunged into his economic defense. He then reviewed the financial collapse, making sure we all knew it wasn’t on his watch that the banks and economy melted down. From there it was bromides mixed with attacks on Republicans. (“As long as I’m president, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum. But I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place.”)
Fairness, of course, was much on his mind: “Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. What’s at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. We have to reclaim them.” By that, he is talking about equality of income and outcome. He’s not talking about a flat tax (which would truly be treating all taxpayers alike), but a redistribution of wealth.
His actual agenda was meager, however. Yes, he asked for tax reform and breaks for manufacturing companies, but presented no plan of his own. (“Send me these tax reforms, and I’ll sign them right away.”)
Perhaps hearing Mitt Romney’s footsteps, he, too, offered to get tough with trade-cheating countries. The big idea? “[A] Trade Enforcement Unit that will be charged with investigating unfair trade practices in countries like China.” Wow.
He talked about training programs, ordering states to keep kids in school until they are 18 years old, and more college aid. Then came a cynical call for immigration reform -- after three years of inaction on his part. Even that didn’t seem serious: “We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform right now. But if election-year politics keeps Congress from acting on a comprehensive plan, let’s at least agree to stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses, and defend this country. Send me a law that gives them the chance to earn their citizenship. I will sign it right away.”
Then there was a long plea for domestic energy development -- a truly nervy demand given his rejection of the Keystone Pipeline. The hypocritical call for an “all of the above” energy strategy brought some incredulous looks to the face of Republicans. He then got revved up with the prospect of more taxes on big, bad oil companies.
Next was the equally cynical call to reduce regulation. This comes from the author of Obamacare, the fan of Dodd-Frank, and the cheerleader for the EPA. He then celebrated all the financial regulations he’s implemented and rubbed the legislators’ noses in his legally questionable non-recess appointment. “So if you’re a big bank or financial institution, you are no longer allowed to make risky bets with your customers’ deposits. You’re required to write out a ‘living will’ that details exactly how you’ll pay the bills if you fail – because the rest of us aren’t bailing you out ever again. And if you’re a mortgage lender or a payday lender or a credit card company, the days of signing people up for products they can’t afford with confusing forms and deceptive practices are over. Today, American consumers finally have a watchdog in Richard Cordray with one job: To look out for them.”
Then, nearly three quarters of the way through the speech, he got to our fiscal trainwreck. But once again it was little of substance and more partisan cheers to tax the rich:
When it comes to the deficit, we’ve already agreed to more than $2 trillion in cuts and savings. But we need to do more, and that means making choices. Right now, we’re poised to spend nearly $1 trillion more on what was supposed to be a temporary tax break for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. Right now, because of loopholes and shelters in the tax code, a quarter of all millionaires pay lower tax rates than millions of middle-class households. Right now, Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. . . .
The American people know what the right choice is. So do I. As I told the Speaker this summer, I’m prepared to make more reforms that rein in the long term costs of Medicare and Medicaid, and strengthen Social Security, so long as those programs remain a guarantee of security for seniors.
But in return, we need to change our tax code so that people like me, and an awful lot of Members of Congress, pay our fair share of taxes. Tax reform should follow the Buffett rule: If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes. And my Republican friend Tom Coburn is right: Washington should stop subsidizing millionaires. In fact, if you’re earning a million dollars a year, you shouldn’t get special tax subsidies or deductions. On the other hand, if you make under $250,000 a year, like 98 percent of American families, your taxes shouldn’t go up. You’re the ones struggling with rising costs and stagnant wages. You’re the ones who need relief.
Where is his entitlement reform? Where is his tax-reform plan? He can’t be bothered with actual governance.
There were the mandatory “I am really not going after the rich” lines. He declared: “When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich. It’s because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference – like a senior on a fixed income; or a student trying to get through school; or a family trying to make ends meet.” (Left unsaid is the reality that the tax code is already extremely progressive.)
Again, the math is phony; all the tax increase he could stomach would not make a dent in the debt without meaningful entitlement control. In a line worthy of Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, he hollered to cut defense and to instead nation-build at home. Eliminating the entire defense budget wouldn’t do the trick, given the rate at which he spends money.
At the tail end, he came back to foreign policy. With a straight face he declared: “Our oldest alliances in Europe and Asia are stronger than ever. Our ties to the Americas are deeper. Our iron-clad commitment to Israel’s security has meant the closest military cooperation between our two countries in history.”
On Iran he insisted rhat his diplomacy was working, although he recited his determination to leave all options on the table.
But we are at war in Afghanistan, and the sum total of his remarks was this: “From this position of strength, we’ve begun to wind down the war in Afghanistan. Ten thousand of our troops have come home. Twenty-three thousand more will leave by the end of this summer. This transition to Afghan lead will continue, and we will build an enduring partnership with Afghanistan, so that it is never again a source of attacks against America.” No mention of sacrifices and no call for victory. Shameful.
It was a painfully long and shapeless speech, designed to cheer Democrats and stick his finger in the eyes of Republicans. (He’s not going to let them poison kids with mercury, thank goodness.) He talks about Washington being broken as if he were a passive observer -- which I suppose he is. He decries nasty partisanship, as if he had not accused Republicans of putting party over country.
As far as his own policy initiatives, however, it was a shockingly barren speech. But of course, it’s not about governing. It’s about getting re-elected.