Friday, February 15, 2013

The State of the Union

Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night has elicited a lot of positive reviews from liberal writers, but Time Magazine's Joe Klein was not one of them. His column "Aiming Low, Missing Greatness" complained that Obama's speech was a laundry list of "depressingly conventional" spending priorities for tired Democratic programs. He concluded:
It turns out, though, that Obama is not a visionary. His moments of passion are a bit too accessible. His Inaugural celebration of the equality we have achieved was worthy, but not very challenging.
I'm an admirer of Presidential vision too, but I'm not really certain what Klein is after here. Presidents rarely put forward "visions" in the way Klein is talking about. Sometimes they attempt to do so rhetorically, like Clinton's "Bridge to the 21st Century," but that kind of speech has a shelf life of a few weeks. The best presidential speeches have spoken to their particular American moment. The Gettysburg Address has a universality embedded in its themes of death and rebirth, but the immediate context of the battlefield where 50,000 soldiers died was essential. Lincoln spoke to the war and its meaning, not a grand vision for the future beyond it. Nor was there any grand vision in his Inaugural Addresses. His First Inaugural was dry, legalistic, and focused exclusively on the issue of secession. His Second Inaugural was a reflection on the nature of the causes of the war, the national sin of slavery. His best speeches looked backward not forward, (I'd like to think) because he wanted Americans to derive their national purpose from an honest engagement with their past.

I posted some thoughts on Second Inaugurals just after Obama delivered his (which Joe Klein also disliked). Looking back through that post, it's hard to find any speeches there that match Klein's criteria. FDR's third Inaugural Address, his "Four Freedoms" speech in 1941, could serve as an example, since it laid a philosophical foundation for the New Deal state and the new role America had to play in international politics.
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants -- everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor -- anywhere in the world.
Forward looking, certainly, but the context was crucial. FDR was trying to nudge the nation toward committed involvement in World War II. He was also speaking with the knowledge that his New Deal coalition had won control of both houses of Congress. His speech was not intended to lay out a decades-long blueprint—he had immediate priorities and a Congress willing and able to implement them. Without that, a "visionary speech" would have been ineffectual if not fatuous, and FDR was all too aware of that. In fact, the next line in his speech after delineating his Four Freedoms was this:
That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called “new order” of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.
There are other examples, but again the political context dictated the opportunity. JFK's commencement address at American University in 1963, for instance, lays out a vision for global peace. But that wasn't the State of the Union, it was almost exclusively focused on foreign policy (in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis), it had an immediate political goal: creating and signing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and again JFK's party had won control of both Houses of Congress.

Obama faces a different political reality in which the House is controlled by an opposition party unwilling to act or even think like responsible politicians. (The Senate too often slips into the same outrageous habits, as they did just yesterday in their indefensible filibuster of a vote for the Secretary of Defense.) Delusional centrist pundits like David Brooks cannot acknowledge this, so they continue to make ridiculous demands of Obama for middle-ground problem solving that have no hope of getting anywhere. To be fair, Klein is not like Brooks... he wanted Obama to articulate a more robust intellectual liberalism, as opposed to "push[ing] familiar moderate liberal buttons." But Klein quickly takes that logic into the same fantasyland where Brooks has been vacationing for the past four years:
That sort of discussion might change the shape of our politics, enabling new coalitions that make terms like liberal and conservative irrelevant. But this President, sadly--no, shockingly--seems to see the options as more or less, rather than better or worse. It may be that the blather of his opponents has been so oppressive that he is still in a defensive crouch, just a bit more aggressive after the election returns.
What politics, policies, or "vision" should have Obama have outlined in his State of the Union that would have changed the shape of our politics? Klein's example... Obama ought to have proposed a modernizing smartphone app to streamline the Bureau of Veteran Affairs.

I am unclear how that would "change the shape of our politics."

Obama seems to have had another agenda in mind, one that called for smart, center-left policies designed with two goals in mind:

  1. Use the debate over issues to solidify the coalition of voters that gave him a second term and that promise (though of course there is great uncertainty here) to make the Democratic Party dominant. That includes a minimum wage hike to appeal to the white working class as well as minority voters. The centrality of that proposal in Obama's speech indicates that he is on the offensive, not defensive. (As a counterpoint, Ruy Teixeira thinks he didn't go nearly far enough on this score.)
  2. Force Republicans to defend their obstructionism to reforms that seem modest, common-sense, and palatable to centrist voters. Among others, Jacob Weisberg thinks the speech was all about setting up Republicans.
Now I'm sympathetic to demands for a stronger progressive vision in federal government, particularly since Obama's candidacy in 2007-8 promised as much. But our political reality is this: the only path to passing any agenda let alone a liberal agenda will be if the Republican Party remakes itself or destroys itself. Progress, as Obama sees it, involves hastening that day.

Good speech, good strategy... since really there are no alternatives.

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