President Obama’s second inaugural address and his recent State of the Union have been described as “two acts in the same play.” They are matched “bookends.” They belong together “like bagels and toothpaste.”
Actually, that last characterization is mine. It is difficult to imagine two more different speeches in intention or ambition. The inaugural presented Obama’s unvarnished progressivism as the culmination of the American founding. The State of the Union presented a grab bag of proposals, some recycled (infrastructure spending, the Paycheck Fairness Act), some piddling (college affordability scorecards, a few “manufacturing hubs”), most very typical. The revolution of Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall evidently arrives with the $9 minimum wage.
The State of the Union also notched down the stridency. Only a few times were Republicans accused of betraying “teachers,” “cops,” “firefighters” and “senior citizens and working families.” By Obama standards, a model of grace.
The speech was Clintonian, which some of us found reassuring. Many of Obama’s largest requests were downright reasonable. The emotional centerpiece of his remarks was a call for votes on three prudent, incremental gun-control measures. He challenged Republicans to return to a position on climate disruption that many held only a few years ago. He embraced the possibility of an “AIDS-free generation,” which should (one would hope) find support on both sides of the aisle. He outlined a centrist position on immigration reform designed to accommodate GOP concerns.
If Republicans find these measures ideologically aggressive, it is only because their ideology has become immoderate.
The main problem with Obama’s State of the Union was not zealotry or overreach; it was a pervasive lack of substance and seriousness.
Obama is exactly right about the sequester scheduled for March 1. Spending reductions that are equally applied are not equally felt — some fall on waste and bureaucracy, others on meat inspectors and the provision of AIDS drugs. Across-the-board cuts are an abdication of governing and moral choice. But, as former Clinton adviser William Galston noted, Obama “urged agreements that would avert these events but offered nothing beyond what he had already put on the table.” The president seemed more interested in setting up blame for the sequester than avoiding it.
Obama is generally right on the two elements of an eventual agreement to stabilize the finances of the government — broad tax reform that closes loopholes and health entitlement reform. In his speech, he correctly noted that, on our current path, “retirement programs will crowd out the investments we need for our children.” Yet he proceeded to dismiss the urgency of deficit reduction and to embrace policies that only address the short-term need. “Obama appears to have decided,” says Galston, “that there is no possibility of resolving the larger fiscal issues on terms that he and his party would find acceptable.”
Obama is right in tackling the problem of economic mobility — the need to “build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class for all who are willing to climb them.” And he raised some unavoidable issues: early childhood education and job training. But, so far, there are no details attached to these proposals that would allow an assessment of their seriousness and cost.
Such vagueness suffused the speech. If Congress refuses to move on climate change, Obama didn’t promise to act. He promised to “direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions.” He didn’t pledge voting rights enforcement. He proposed “a nonpartisan commission to improve the voting experience in America.” Instead of proposing actual plans, he issued “a new goal for America: Let’s cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses,” and “a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools.” “We’ll work with local leaders,” he said, “to target resources at public safety” and “my administration will begin to partner with 20 of the hardest-hit towns.”
Executive directives like these — “my administration will begin to partner” — involve a diminution of the executive and indicate a weak policy process. It is something I occasionally encountered when I was head of White House speechwriting. The word goes out to the Energy Department: We need a proposal. The idea comes back: “Tonight I am instructing my distinguished energy secretary to convene a blue-ribbon panel that will study a cooperative process with state and local officials to set the goal of redesigning the American energy experience within 10 years.”
Such ideas are typical products of government. Including them in the State of the Union address is a sign of ideological fatigue.