President Barack Obama on Tuesday made what many are considering to be one of the most liberal State of the Union addresses in history. Obama advocated an extensive second-term agenda and, despite brief rhetoric to the contrary, defended big government as an answer to our ailments.
The media largely seems to have focused on Senator Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) infamous “water-gaffe”. (Rubio gave the Republican Party’s response to the SOTU, as is tradition for the opposition party.) Rubio’s gaffe was unimportant, and anyways, his speech wasn’t much different from most opposition speeches: light on detail and entirely uncontroversial.
Lost in all of this was that Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) delivered a speech that showed the points of divergence between today’s two major governing theories: Obama’s blue-model liberalism and the Tea Party’s neo-constitutionalism. Whether because of 2016 presidential rumors or as his influence as a sitting senator, Paul is worth paying attention to.
The differences in theories have been split into four major categories: the purpose and size of government, the role of the executive, the budget, and new policies proposed. For each, we’ll examine a relevant quote from both Obama’s and Paul’s speeches.
PURPOSE AND SIZE OF GOVERNMENT
This country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that…it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story
What America needs is not Robin Hood but Adam Smith. In the year we won our independence, Adam Smith described what creates the wealth of nations. He described a limited government that largely did not interfere with individuals and their pursuit of happiness.
Obama ties the concept of obligations into citizenship: as someone living in this country, there are things you must do because the state’s functioning requires it. He speaks of joint responsibility, collective action, and a shared future. Paul instead focuses on prosperity through freedom; we thrive because of individuals seeking their own ends. Obama makes a subtle rip on individual liberty (“our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others”), which is a common argument against the sort of individualism, or natural-rights based government, Paul seeks. Essentially, the argument goes, no man exists in a vacuum, so your right to pursue your own ends will often come into conflict with my right to prosper.
THE ROLE OF THE EXECUTIVE
…if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations [from climate change], I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take.
We cannot and will not allow any President to act as if he were a king.
Obama believes that in many debates, there is right and wrong, or good and evil, and that sometimes politics prevent people from doing the right thing. Thus, the president can and should do whatever is possible to make sure Right prevails.
Paul, by contrast, is extremely sensitive to executive overreach. As a member of the legislative branch, he is offended by the notion that an executive thinks he can bring a certain piece of legislation to the floor, or demand he vote a certain way. This is similar to government power in that Obama takes a very end-centric view: we do whatever we need to to achieve the best result. Paul is more sensitive to rule of law concerns, in which it is crucial to respect existing procedures and limitations.
These sudden, harsh, arbitrary [sequester] cuts would jeopardize our military readiness. They’d devastate priorities like education, energy, and medical research.
The President does a bit “woe is me” over the sequester…the sequester doesn’t even cut any spending. It just slows the rate of growth. Even with the sequester, government will grow over $7 trillion over the next decade.
The sequester was essentially a “poison pill”; if the two parties couldn’t come up with enough deficit reduction, automatic cuts to both military and domestic spending would kick in. The thinking was that Republicans wouldn’t want the military cuts, and Democrats wouldn’t want domestic cuts, so both parties would be pressured to cooperate.
Obama is trying to press Republicans here by mentioning the military cuts first. Some Republicans think military spending is sacrosanct; Paul is not one of them, so he doesn’t take the bait.
The president sees a lot of good being done by spending that would be reduced as a result of sequestration. He’s less worried about deficits, since America is still the world’s reserve currency; the debt is something that may or may not come to bear, whereas these cuts will definitely cut important programs.
Paul’s take is that the budget will grow regardless, and that we need to start having honest conversations about what a “cut” really is.
NEW POLICIES PROPOSED
Obama proposes, among other things: a government-written “college scorecard”; tax reform that hikes rates on millionaires; executive action to combat climate change; a public-private “energy security trust” to reduce oil consumption; federal subsidies for states that build energy efficient buildings; increased pre-K funding; an increased minimum wage; a voting-rights commission that would enforce its recommendations at the state level; American assistance in the eradication of global poverty and AIDS.
Paul’s major proposal was a budget that would eliminate the deficit within five years and a law to enforce future deficit control. He also advocates for greater government transparency, school vouchers, cessation of foreign aid to countries hostile to us, and a flat tax.
Each politician’s policy prescriptions are reflective of their overarching philosophies. President Obama wishes to use the government’s considerable power to solve everything from climate change to poverty. Senator Paul wants to narrow the focus of our activities and let the private sector work its magic. Obama’s proposals would require a considerable increase in taxes and the size of government; just about all of Paul’s proposals involve shrinking government influence.
These speeches represent a fascinating philosophical contrast; they’re likely a good indicator of the lines along which the 2016 presidential race will be fought (even if Paul is not a candidate). Both were direct, ideological, and aggressive. They make us actively think about the role we want government to play in our lives. This is what our political discourse should resemble.