Thanks to Woodrow Wilson, a man for which “humility” was a completely unknown concept, American presidents deliver annual speeches to Congress. The State of the Union addresses, which before Wilson’s presidency were written and distributed to legislators, serve as a reminder of our monarchic roots. For the concept of an executive proclaiming his will to the people and attempting to set a policy agenda would be quite familiar to kings and dictators of centuries past. It is disturbing enough that democratic citizens have to put up with such a charade; at the very least, it would be nice to be repaid with a speech that is at least marginally useful.
While the media made much of the unusual congeniality shown by our politicians (more on that later), lost was the fact that the speech itself was abysmal. Indeed, President Obama, the supreme orator, the master of the “teachable moment”, failed to teach at a moment when the words of an adult desperately needed to be heard by the American people.
The State of the Union was an opportunity lost for the president to start a serious discussion about the problems we face, the solutions offered by each party, and the costs and benefits associated with each argument. He could have then told us why he believed his party’s ideas were superior, allowing the public to seriously think about serious issues and make judgments based on the information provided. This is the benefit politicians provide to society-they argue about things like the deficit and foreign policy so that the rest of us can actually produce useful goods and services. It would seem to be their responsibility, thus, to give us an honest assessment of where the debate stands. President Obama should have done this in three specific policy arenas: fiscal (the deficit), education (public school funding), and foreign (status of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan).
Addressing fiscal policy, the president should have explained with extreme, frightful clarity the enormity of our deficit mess. (2011 debt alone is projected at $1.5 trillion dollars.) What does he plan on doing about it? What spending can and can’t be cut? What programs are potentially on the chopping block? How much money will these ideas save us, and how far do we have to go from there? And what will all this mean for Americans?
The president should have detailed the discussion around government control of education. Is the money being spent efficiently? If not, why, and can it be bettered? What role should parents have in school choice (i.e. charter schools)? Does it make sense for everyone to go to college? If not, will we eliminate or reduce government funded scholarships? What’s the situation with battles between teachers unions and state governments? Who’s right?
Finally, a president that owes his primary victory largely to a vote not to invade Iraq should explain why we’re still there. The president was adamantly opposed to the Iraq war, but troop withdrawals are constantly delayed. Why? Are there more serious issues in the country than we initially thought? As for Afghanistan-why are we sending more of our young men and women there? The decision to order our soldiers to fight and die is the most serious one a president makes. So why are they fighting and dying for a corrupt regime? Is al Qaeda still dependent on Afghanistan, or will we be chasing terrorists into other countries? And how long does this massive drawn out operation continue? Are we in a constant state of war?
The president’s answers to the above questions would likely not satisfy a libertarian such as myself. It would have been nice, however, to at least hear them seriously addressed. What we received Tuesday night was instead an incoherent speech rife with contradictions and deplete of any realistic assessments of…anything. President Obama subjected us to a rant about how the Chinese are taking all of our jobs, followed by a plea for more spending in green energy. Apparently global economics, but not government spending, is a zero sum game, in which Chinese jobs necessarily come at the expense of American jobs but government subsidies are cost free.
Much ballyhoo has been made over the tone of our political discourse. To that extent, the speech was a success. John McCain and John Kerry were just two of the many politicians who, like a boy and girl in a second grade class, had the courage to actually sit next to each other. Republicans and Democrats clapped together more often. And Joe Biden kept a straight face for over an hour!
As for the actual failings of our political discourse-the content-the SOTU was a resounding failure. Citizens not versed in politics now have no better understanding of the issues and the arguments than they did before, or if they do, its a false one. (For example, there is no choice between free trade and letting the Chinese take American jobs.) If we wanted this, we’d ask the cast of ESPN’s NFL Countdown to talk politics. Presumably, we don’t.
Here’s to hoping that the next SOTU will be the president’s best, as it may certainly be his last.