Quote in headline: Marshall McLuhan – “Understanding Media,” 1964
On January 27, President Obama, following long tradition, delivered to a joint session of Congress and the American people his constitutionally mandated report on the state of the union. This report, over time, has become less of a report on the nation’s health than a self congratulatory report on how well each president’s administration is doing and a pep talk to push (some might say coerce) Congress into enacting any given White House’s agenda. Citizens know to take these reports with a grain of salt. But this address, by this President, took the state-of-the-union ritual to a new level of audacity– that word seems to define this president — in the claims of success it made, the facts it misreported, the predictions of improvement that lay ahead and the call for an end to mistrust and cynicism. If there weren’t an atmosphere in the capital of mistrust and cynicism before the speech, Mr. Obama’s report alone would have given birth to it. It was, in many respects, reminiscent of media-guru Marshall McLuhan’s description of media content as “the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”
We thought that waiting almost two weeks and having an opportunity to study the text for cool reflection before publishing an essay on the speech might cast it in a somewhat different light. It did. In our view Mr. Obama’s report to the nation was as close to pure political campaigning as a presidential address can get.
It started, as President Obama always seems to do, with a reminder that he inherited two wars and a financial mess. We know that; he reminds us repeatedly. But he ran on the promise and expectation of improving the state of the union. He claimed at the very start of his report that his Administration’s aggressive actions caused the worst of the storm to pass. Is there anyone in America who can actually believe that claim of cause and effect? The aggressive action that was taken (and which the president, most members of his party and many Republicans deride) was the bank bailout, enacted by the Bush Administration (TARP) aimed at preventing a systemic financial collapse. The “aggressive” action of the current Administration was the nearly $800 billion stimulus bill, which seems not to have stimulated anything except the national debt. There is no proof that any net jobs were saved (in fact, there is compelling evidence that none were) despite the president’s claim to the contrary and unemployment, which the president predicted would drop, has gone from eight percent to nearly ten percent for which the president’s prescription is another stimulus bill, this time in the new wrapper of a “Jobs Bill.”
As proof of his success, the president cited a small business in Phoenix and a window manufacturer in Philadelphia. Surely there are other anecdotal success stories. But job losses as reported by the Labor Department continued every month of 2009. If some jobs were created (or saved) from $800 billion of taxpayer money being tossed about, what was the cost of each job created…and what was the cost of each job lost as money was diverted from one part of the economy (the private sector) to fund employment in another part of the economy (primarily the public sector)?
The only things that stabilized the country and brought us back from the brink were the unprecedented and controversial actions under TARP, which saved the banking system. Much of that money has been repaid by the banks, with interest, in contrast to Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae, the multi billion dollar Congressional candy stores which more than any other institutions were responsible for the housing bubble, the bursting of which literally brought down the economy like a house of cards. For these government-sponsored enterprises, Congress in 2009 greatly increased the liability of the American taxpayer. President Obama and the democratically controlled congress have lifted the loss limit for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (actually they erased it altogether) and they now have a blank check from the taxpayer to cover their ever-mounting losses which have turned Fannie and Freddie into penny stocks.
So what does the president do and say? In the wake of losing his Senate supermajority, he begins to breathe fire and smoke at Wall Street, engendering populist wrath at financial institutions. He also proposes to tax them by publicly demanding, “we want our money back.” Surprise Mr. President; we have, so far, gotten over $160 billion of it back. The tax, despite his denial, is all about raising populist ire, never mind how divisive such a tactic is, nor the chilling effect it will have on new investment in any industry in the Administration’s gun sights.
The president showed no recognition that the American people have, at every turn, soundly rejected his idea of healthcare “reform.” He explains away the recent evidence from the Massachusetts senatorial election (not to mention recent routs in New Jersey and Virginia) by asserting that he just has to better explain the legislation. Congress, he suggests, should ignore the unmistakable unpopularity of his proposal with the American people and pass the bill anyway using any possible legislative trickery (changing Senate rules, using the “reconciliation process”, splitting the bill into two separate parts) and get it to him for signature, after which he will in true elitist fashion, explain it to the great unwashed masses.
Could he be more dismissive and condescending of the intelligence of the American people? And does he not understand how much more politically divided this nation will be if the largest entitlement program since Social Security and Medicare becomes law, not only without an overwhelming consensus in favor of it but through legislative artifice.
The president also took note of our unsustainable deficits. He proposed a small first step forward in budgetary control (after taking two steps backwards with 2009 record spending and proposed 2010 record spending) through a freeze on discretionary budget spending. The budget he released on February 1st looks more like the movie Groundhog Day in government spending. It actually increases the annual budget deficit to $1.6 trillion. The line-by-line review he promised with his surgical scalpel in hand is totally absent. As near as we can tell every existing program remains. He even increased non-discretionary spending by making the Pell Grant program a permanent entitlement program. Is this a foreshadowing to making a college education for every student a taxpayer obligation?
Moreover, be vigilant; he also proposed restoring “pay go,” a Congressional device which means that any new program must be paid for by spending cuts elsewhere, or by tax increases. With huge majorities in both houses of Congress anxious to enact every social program on their multi-decade wish list, so that the government can intrude into nearly every aspect of our lives, which alternative (reduced spending or increased taxation) can we expect them or any Commission he appoints to choose? Will they cut pet projects and unnecessary subsidies, or will they increase taxes on the “wealthy”? Sorry, it was just a rhetorical question.
And yet, after making such exaggerated claims and offering no real sign of compromise on his health care reform proposals, which have divided the country since the inception of his presidency, Mr. Obama kept returning to the theme of post partisanship and the terrible tone of our politics. There is no question that he is right and that both sides of the aisle are responsible. As an example, a nasty filibuster demonizing a presidential nominee, which in turn reduces the pool of qualified people willing to take highly important positions for fear of being publicly pilloried, threatens every confirmation vote.
Both parties have used these tactics, justifying them as similar to past actions by the other, and both sides accuse the other of casting the first stone. But, how can the president be taken seriously about bipartisanship after having walked away from his promise to put conference committee negotiations reconciling the health care proposals of both houses of Congress on C Span when, in fact, without a conference committee even being appointed, the negotiations are held behind closed doors with no members of the Republican party invited, where tawdry deals favoring labor unions, or special deals favoring one state over another to buy votes, are cut out of public view and jammed down the throats of the minority?
Well past the halfway point of his address, the president finally gave a nod to the issue which all polls show is the most important one on the minds of Americans, heightened yet again by the Fort Hood attack and the failed Christmas Day airplane bombing: national security. Here is where we were most disturbed by his speech. The Commander-in-Chief stood before the nation and claimed to be filling the gaps in our security revealed by the Christmas Day incident. What exactly is he doing to fill those gaps? He didn’t say. The only thing the public heard so far was the TSA’s announcement (since retracted) that bathroom visits would be barred in the last half hour of every flight. And by the way, why wasn’t there already a coordinated plan after one year in office?
More revealing was his silence about the decision to treat Amur Farouk Abdulmutallab, as a mere common criminal to be dealt with through our criminal justice system. The Justice Department’s decision, to advise this intended mass murderer of his right to remain silent, is frightfully stunning. Not surprisingly, we have since learned, this decision was made without consulting any of our national security agencies. The president’s silence on this misguided judgment is utterly revealing of the place national security has in the Administration’s triage of important issues. Not one word of recognition was uttered which conceivably could give the American public any comfort that he and Attorney General Holder are more interested in doing what is necessary to keep us safe from terrorist attacks than they are in placating the left wing of their party, which has shown itself to be far more concerned about exquisite constitutional protections for our sworn enemies, than in effectively dealing with this mortal threat to our nation.
This mindset is further demonstrated by the Department of Justice’s decision to reopen an investigation, over CIA Director Leon Panetta’s objection, of CIA officers, which had already been thoroughly investigated, or the Justice Department’s public release of the CIA inspector general’s report on our interrogation program. As former CIA Director Michael Hayden stated in an op-ed piece in the January 31, 2010 Washington Post:
“Intelligence officers need to know that someone has their back. After the Justice memos were released in April, CIA officers began to ask whether the people following procedures that were currently authorized would be dragged through this kind of public knothole in five years. No one could guarantee that they would not.” (emphasis added).
Mr. Hayden also noted the peculiarity that while the High Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG), the formation of which was announced by the Administration last August to interrogate key Al Qaeda prisoners, was not yet ready to interrogate anyone, the FBI was busy interrogating CIA personnel. The mind reels at the consequences of such a “peculiarity.” If this is the priority of our Justice Department, please bring back Alberto Gonzales. We might even prefer Janet Reno.
We also wondered how the president, with a straight face, could claim progress in forging a better consensus for tougher sanctions on North Korea and Iran. Russia continues to refuse to support strong additional sanctions such as cutting off refined oil products to Iran even after we gave them the “gift” of abandoning a missile shield in Eastern Europe, which was directed to intercept attacks from Iran. China is even more recalcitrant . . . and all of this is in the face of Iranian rejection of, and public contempt for, Mr. Obama’s repeated offers of engagement. As for North Korea, they continue to conduct missile tests and seize innocent Americans and others who allegedly cross their border or enter their territorial waters by a matter of inches.
For a moment in his address, we thought we heard a promising foreign policy shift. The president spoke of the importance of trading with our friends and specifically mentioned South Korea, Panama and Colombia, three countries where the president’s union supporters have fought free trade agreements that have been bottled up in Congress for years. Both of these treaties are generally recognized to be quite favorable in their terms to the United States. And then, just when the logical next sentence would have been “that is why I will urge the Congress to approve the South Korean and Colombia free trade treaties,” (unless our television cut off for a few seconds, or the text of the speech we read the next day inadvertently omitted that sentence) the president moved to another subject.
As for his dream of a nuclear free world, Mr. Obama is negotiating for a reduction in our arms stockpile and delivery systems to the level of the Russians. They, of course, continue to upgrade their existing weapons while our own Congress, bowing to its anti-war leftist wing, hasn’t been willing to appropriate funds to upgrade the safety and maintenance of our force.
The only military commitment the president clearly made was his pledge to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law that discriminates against gays in the military. Certainly, this is a policy that, we believe, can and should be readdressed. We wish, however, the President had brought the same passion to the critical matter of protecting the lives of Americans who are so clearly in the crosshairs of Islamic extremists.
All in all, the speech, both when we first heard it and upon rereading and reflection amounted to little more than Washington spin at high gear. The president repackaged all of his failed initiatives in soothing words of compromise and tantalizing hints of bipartisanship, which he promptly took away by explicitly repeating a bottom line, which hasn’t changed. For a leader who won office in an historic election by so effectively being in touch with and hearing the aspirations of the American people only fifteen months ago, the speed with which he has descended into political deafness is absolutely breathtaking to behold.