NYT Op-ed contributor, Thomas Friedman, described how Obama was going to have to use his analytical strength over using populist anger to try and win over the people. While I think that Obama used a mixture of both to try and win over the American people, a style of pandering that does not usually go over well with political pundits, he was definitely able to do one specific thing that he is very good at, continuing to push forth is old agenda without creating adaptation to new ideas. It might seem strange for me to comment on the State of Union address this way, especially with man who is dedicated to change, but in my humble opinion this seems to be just a facade. In order to get my point across better, I will analyze each major section of the State of the Union showing where he is killing the horse.
If I had to pick a topic of the night, I would have to say that the economy would win by a landslide, and respectively, it should have. This area is complex. Breaking down a difficult subject area in order to try and convince the American populace is like explaining quantum physics to non-scientists.
Good: Obama came out strong by announcing the official numbers, describing how he had not raised income taxes and showed the bank bailout was necessary, even though it was comparable to getting a root canal. On that point, he also mentioned small microlevel solutions, such as tax credits for small businesses, which probably will win over the teabaggers. He also used strong anecdotal stories to show that he knew the problems of the people and sympathized with them, always a tearjerker:(
Bad: This is where Obama beat the dead horse, he discussed the U.S. role in the international economy showing similar solutions that were under Bush’s term, such as free trade agreements with South Korea and the long dead DOHA round of trade talks, arguably none would actually stimulate the economy during this time. He also should have talked more about education, I will elaborate latter on this, to show how getting a college degree could save the U.S. money in the long run, not even his tax credits can save him on this point. Keeping jobs on a American soil was another point that was reiterated over and over again, I thought I was watching the Republican response for a second. This really does not do anything but irritate China and other nations. We can’t say that we will participate in the global economy and engage in protectionism, the G-20 basically settled that point last March. Finally, Obama needs to tell the people in the audience that Ben Bernake should stay as the Federal Reserve Chairman. While I would argue that he did keep interest rates too low for too long, he did rescue the world from recession. In essence, it has been a big argument amongst congress, so Obama should show the world that he wants Bernake, a Great Depression scholar, to stay in the job.
This was a very sad point for me. While I agree with his premise that a college diploma is necessary and that schools need more funding, he is missing a big place that he can score political points. Arne Duncan, the current Secretary of Education, proposed a plan that is in action now called “Race to the Top” in which states compete for federal grants and the best teachers, it really can work. Obama should expand on this initiative. He should not set a date on when we will reach these standards, but at least give the American people something to shoot for. For example, he could follow up on an initiative to increase math and science standards, something that we dreadfully lack in.
Obama should have done more than say, “We can’t give up now.” He did acknowledge failure on his part to explain the bill, but he should have done more than that. What Obama needs to do is talk more specifically about how Healthcare helps the economy. That would have created a better connecting theme to the economy. Americans want an answer to this question, just reiterating the same old jargon about healthcare that most people already know will not make things better, it will just show that he wants to get his domestic agenda through. Telling people why he spent so much of his political capital on the topic is important though.
This also produced the same solutions that we have heard before, like offshore drilling, more nuclear power plants, we will contribute to the global alternative energy market, etc. If Obama really wanted to impress the crowd, and create a feeling of awkwardness amongst Congress members, he should have talked more in detail about cap and trade. This is something that is his big initiative, I think that most Americans don’t understand it, so having some explanation would be nice. Finally, he could have talked about Copenhagen. This conference was ultimately a bust, but it did produce a few agreements. Tell the world where we will go with this framework and how the U.S. will go into Mexico City next year high with pride to define the global climate change agenda. He should have also linked energy more to the economy.
This is an area that I was sadly very disappointed in as a listener. With one of the most ambitious foreign policy agendas of any president, and a Noble Prize winner, he should have kept this horse alive. I will dissect each area one by one:
Two Wars: While it is understandable that he did not talk about both wars in depth due to the number of speeches he has give on the topic, I think that it would be nice I he spent more than 10 minutes on it. He should have discussed reintegration programs with the Taliban in Afghanistan and how in a while there will be a conference on the issue of Afghanistan security, Hillary Clinton even missed the State of the Union because she was at a conference on that very topic. Encouraging the troops is nice, discussing future plans for development is better.
Iran: This was a tough topic to deal with. Obama basically lumped Iran and North Korea together, which was a bad move (he might as well have used the Bush term axis of evil). In the end it was mostly about sanctions, but he should have elaborated on what part of the economy the sanctions should have targeted. Also, he should have talked about the possibility of going after a regime change in Iran, subtly of course since that has been on a lot of the news medias minds.
China: If the Chinese don’t yell at this speech for protectionism, as mentioned earlier, then I will be surprised. Obama should have discussed more about the G-2 initiative to work collaboratively with China on economic issues. Also, discussing the major currency revaluation of the remnbi would have been a nice gesture because of the strong foreign trade imbalance. Finally, Obama had an opportunity to talk about human rights and censoring with the recent Google controversy. While China might not like it, Obama would have won points with human rights activists – matching his rhetoric during his Nobel Prize lecture.
This is a very difficult issue. In fact, I was surprised that he talked about it so bluntly. He called out Republicans as the party of “No,” leaving Bob McDonnell with mere talking points, and he pressured his own party to not give up. I also like how he said we should listen to each other, but acknowledged that he needs to do a better job of that. If he really wanted to make a statement, he should have called for the end of the filibuster. It is a useless political tool that destroys debate, on both sides. It just creates a procedural barrier to real change. Tackling that hurdle would have sent a message.
While I am very critical of Obama here, I will say that he did a very good job. He came out confident, and with a very small agenda (with hardly any new items) to show that he is committed to his old programs. I would give Obama a B- for his performance. He did not address many critical points, and it mostly just political pandering. While I give him the grade because that is what he was supposed to do, it did not show strong leadership. We are in tough times, we need a leader not a panderer to “common sense” solutions. Obama should just bury the corpse of the horse and start riding a new one.