He Tries, He Tries, He Tries
President Obama prepares us for another one of those years.
Michael Ubaldi, January 28, 2010.
What an oration that was; a cross between a Protestant sermon and a presentation before the board of directors. For ninety minutes it proceeded in a shuffle, unmusically, swinging from loftily austere to slangy, then disciplinarian, and then to mundane fact-studded stuff. Insofar as these yearly addresses register with the public, the president shouldn't suffer too badly from what early commentariat analyses measure to be a poor speech. But the country's appraisal, if gradual, is cumulative; and the White House's asseveration of statist economics, social engineering, and international mousiness foretell a year much like the last one. So you have to wonder what Mr. Obama will have left to say in 2011.
To his credit and that of his political strategists, the president chose to go long on employment and gross domestic product over the next four quarters — he did this because, right now, he can. Take pollster Scott Rasmussen, who made his name by predicting everything the right did not want to hear in 2006 and 2008. Consistently, Rasmussen's surveys show that 1) Mr. Obama profits from resentment of the Bush administration even though 2) White House policies diverge from the electorate's expectations, particularly because 3) most people still believe the president will fulfill public wishes. About three-fifths of respondents oppose the health care salient in Congress, another 60 percent would rather companies pay lower taxes to improve business, and only one-third is pleased with the country's direction. How many approve of the president? Statistically, almost no fewer than the majority that elected him.
From that came high-water marks. "The markets are now stabilized," and "the economy is growing again." The president wagers against backsliding, or else assumes that if the last threshold breached — 8 percent unemployment in lieu of the stimulus bill — made no difference to voters, another won't. As long as he is perceived as trying, read the polls, can anyone blame him?
President Obama's efforts will begin with giving to Paul from Peter what both Peter and Paul earned because Paul deserves it most. "Financing remains difficult," Obama chided, "for small business owners across the country, even those that are making a profit." Because? "Banks on Wall Street" are "mostly lending to bigger companies." Thus $30 billion of taxpayer take, a massive body of capital dwarfed to a starry pinpoint in the cosmic federal budget, will infuse the lending of "community banks." Perhaps the worst is over, as whatever artificially easing credit did to rive the market in 2008 no longer troubles the president.
Three other proposals were imitative of supply-siders: tax credits for small businesses that hire, capital gains holidays for small businesses, and incentives for companies to build plants and fill them with machinery. Woe to those not hiring or laying a new assembly line. Why not lower corporate rates, blind, and let those entrepreneurs and rainmakers figure the way out themselves? For the command economist, it's always contingent.
Characterizing the years 2000-2009 as "the lost decade" — the last twelve months slipped in as a lost year for handy exculpation — the president rhetorically put his hands on his knees. Please stand: China, India, Germany. "These nations aren't playing for second place. They're putting more emphasis on math and science. They're rebuilding their infrastructure. They're making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs." America, why can't you be like your little brother? China's leaden, dictatorial stumbles; Germany's rightward push; and India's stultifying regulation, corruption and discrimination may be relevant to the argument; but the expectant unemployed aren't concerned about an international side-by-side.
With a slight wobble — looking forward to nuclear energy and accessing oil and gas prospecting, then staring at Republicans while standing firmly on the buckling, decline-hiding creed of global warming or climate change or whatever — President Obama began to channel Huey P. Long with a touch of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Careers? Too dependent upon degrees. Solution: money to community colleges. College? Too expensive. Solution: federal loans. Loans? Too onerous. Solution: apparent creation of a modern thane by way of forgiving debt in ten years for public servants. "In the United States of America," he declared, "no one should go broke because they chose to go to college." Or go into the private sector.
After entering a plea for socialized medicine, incriminating the average American as an entitlement-seeker — "What's in it for me?" we are supposed to be asking — the president drew one laugh from roughly half his audience, both immediate and remote. There is going to be a spending freeze, you see. "Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected." Ah, but the remaining one-half of one percent . . . "this freeze won't take effect until next year — when the economy is stronger." President Obama stared at the Republicans again. "That's how budgeting works." Off-camera, the minority party guffawed. This made the president visibly unhappy.
In time came reproof of the Supreme Court and a mildly disorienting transition to national security, which was capped by the president twice pronouncing the "end" of "this war," presumably Operation Iraqi Freedom, but not entirely clear, given the Democratic supplication that bad men might please go away. Then followed advertisements for a revival of acronymic arms treaties intended to deactivate mind-blowing nuclear arsenals so as to avoid confronting the reasons why, say, Washington has never worried about London's megatons.
With visions of left-liberalism as the philosophical bellbottoms and beehive of our time, I was listening to the president's reprimand of, in order, corporations, media, government, CEOs, bankers, doubts, lobbyists, politicians, TV pundits, and sound bites; and realized something. "No wonder there's so much cynicism out there. No wonder there's so much disappointment. . . . And right now, I know there are many Americans who aren't sure if they still believe we can change — or that I can deliver it. " My God, I thought, President Obama is talking about a malaise. Two years passed before Jimmy Carter resorted to pietism; Obama needed only one. Vitally, Americans do not expect delivery from one man of anything except license.
Several minutes later, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell appeared on television, live from Richmond. To a country for whom the GOP's brand equity is guarded, he was a cipher: waspish, southern, staid, terribly practiced, and armed merely with platitudes. It isn't exactly what Republican luminaries say so much as how they say it, and for the unconvinced McDonnell would have been a swift tune-out. Libertarians like Nick Gillespie extol liberty with wit and genuine appeal, and in less than three minutes. But, see, Mr. Gillespie runs magazines and movements, not for public office. The saving grace: no one really listens to the minority response.
The president sounds serious about his policy, so elections may as well occur next Tuesday as on November 2nd. Democrats stand to lose; Republicans stand to gain some proportion of power, and if the present can so indicate, sufficiently unsure of what to do with it. And Mr. Obama, bless him, will still be around.
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