Obama’s State Of The Nation Address And The Other Guy

Posted on February 25, 2009

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Tonight, I watched President Obama’s State of the Nation address to a special joint session of Congress on CNN.com. The speech was rock solid — which should come as no surprise. It hit all the right notes, managed to grapple with some policy details, and still managed to be moving — especially by the end. For the complete text, click here.  

My first impressions :

1. I for one am not convinced that government spending can successfully stimulate an economy out of a paper bag much less a recession, but I do accept the principle of deficit spending for long-term investment. If you borrow money to pay for things which will also benefit those who pay the debt then such spending can be justified — much like spending on any other public good (e.g. national defense). Based on policy programs mentioned in this speech, it sounds like Obama’s administration is borrowing for long-term investment and selling it with the story of “stimulus” spending. If this is true, it will be much better for the U.S. but is, of course, not entirely honest. Moreover, if the rhetoric about the line by line elimination of wasteful spending is genuine then it could be very good for the U.S.. Of course, Obama’s administration may find itself in a bit of a communications jam if Senator X claims his little pet project should be counted as stimulus spending.

2. Immediate tax cuts for the middle and lower classes is sensible. This is probably the only kind of stimulus spending which has much chance of having some positive “stimulating” effect. Plus, from a matter of pure strategy it makes the Republican call for tax cuts sound a little silly (E.g. Why do they keep calling for something he has already done?). Increasing the pay to soldiers seems pretty sensible too. I recall reading an article some time ago that pointed out that one of the unaccounted costs of the war was the fact that a lot of reservists had to give up good jobs to serve overseas and make much less income. Give the soldiers more cash and they will spend it immediately and they probably deserve it too.

3. His rhetoric and policy objectives for health care and education sound very promising but it will be a huge battle in what has been a very long war. Hope is good. Turning it into reality on these issues will be a hard slog. 

4. I think bailing out the auto industry is a big mistake. In fact, I think the worst thing you can do for the auto workers is to bail out the industry. Obama’s administration seems intent on doing so anyway. He talks of being “committed to the goal of a re-tooled, re-imagined auto industry that can compete and win.” But really, the best way for that to happen is to let the big bloated companies collapse, for the government to spend money protecting and re-training workers, and for the government to lend and / or guarantee loans to auto workers (and others) to start new businesses. In time, other industry leaders will buy the undervalued infrastructure and they will provide the innovation. That’s how free enterprise is meant to work. I’m not convinced anyone in Obama’s administration or the U.S. Federal government has the know-how to re-invent the auto industry and the present leaders in the auto industry have more than aptly demonstrated they don’t either. Clearly, though, based on his remarks about the US inventing the automobile, the American people have too much ego invested in the auto industry to let it collapse and probably be taken over by foreign companies. Given Obama’s own commitment to the environment and energy conservation, when he says, “And I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it,” it sounds a lot like a drug addict refusing to walk away from his drug of choice because he also happened to invent it. Of course, if the American people are prepared to bear the costs of a specifically made in America Auto industry, so be it. 

5. My view on the bail-outs to the financial industry is pretty much the same as the bail-outs to the auto industry. Despite the rhetoric, Obama’s administration will be forced by circumstance  to reward and protect incompetence, greed, and fraud. I’m not sure any administration would be able to avoid it and hopefully his has enough political clout to be able to limit the inevitable looting. After all, if the American people are prepared to delay the inevitable hangover by having a bit of a hair of the dog, so be it.  The problem is that the bartender doesn’t care if and when the drinker dies because he always seems to get the tab paid and always receives a substantial tip too.

5. I think this little throw away on foreign policy may have raised a few eyebrows:

“And with our friends and allies, we will forge a new and comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan to defeat al Qaeda and combat extremism. Because I will not allow terrorists to plot against the American people from safe havens half a world away.”

Not only is it implied that Pakistan is not really one of the US’s friends and allies, it also states pretty clearly that safe havens in Pakistan won’t be tolerated either. I’m no diplomat but that sounds like pretty loaded language to me. Sure, it’s no “Axis of Evil”, but it still is pretty strong stuff.

6. I liked the change of tone concerning the partisan battles between Democrats and Republicans. If my search function is working correctly, there is no reference to “ideology” and “ideological” in the text of the speech. More importantly, he emphasized a common love of nation as a foundation for bi-partisan negotiation which, I think, is a communications line that will sell well with both Red and Blue voters.

7. There were a few important bits especially relevant to Canadians too. The expressed commitment to avoid protectionism, the closure of Guantanamo, and the explicit promise not to torture stand out for me (more on this last one in another post). I also couldn’t help but think that a lot of Obama’s rhetoric around green technologies and his commitment to a market based carbon reduction plan sounds mighty similar to Mr. Dion, former Liberal leader. 

8. I was also amused to no end watching all the politicians swooning and / or fawning over Obama. The opening “pageantry” was amusing to watch because it so obviously has its roots in Westminster Parliamentary practice and “Speeches from the Throne.” All the glad-handing was amusing to watch too. A politician never misses an opportunity to shake a hand — even when an entire nation is waiting to hear a speech.

Now onto the other guy:

Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana provided the Republican response and it was a total hoot and delight for all the wrong reasons if you are a Republican. 

1. With Obama now front and centre, it is easy to forget how good he really is at giving speeches. Jindal’s jilting and unnatural cadence, patronizing tone, and simple minded repetition of the “buzz-line” renews my appreciation for Obama’s public speaking prowess and makes me feel a little bit silly for being so acutely aware of the minor glitches in his speech. 

2. The decision to try and position Jindal as a Republican version of Obama only shows how little their strategists get what Obama’s victory was about. 

3. The naked hypocrisy of Republicans was also on full display. How can any Republican talk critically about excessive government spending after the Bush years. To his credit, Jindal did apologize on behalf of Republicans for ignoring everything their party is meant to stand for but he couldn’t resist implying it somehow had to do with the vortex of Washington rather than a total lack of integrity on their part.

4. The actual laugh out loud gut buster was the attempt to re-characterize the travesty of the post Hurricane Katrina rescue efforts as an example of the perils of government bureaucracy and red-tape. I think everyone will agree that the failures of the aftermath of Katrina is an example of the need for a functioning and responsive federal government.

For more of my political commentary, click here.