NATCHITOCHES, La., January 26, 2011 - President Obama delivered his State of the Union Address to unusually muted response last night. That was due in part to the new seating arrangement, Democrats and Republicans awkwardly paired like teens at a prom, unsure of how to behave. It must have been a stressful flashback to high school.
Had the speech been inspiringly transcendent or more vigorously partisan, that awkwardness might have been forgotten, the response more enthusiastic and more resolutely antagonistic. It was neither.
The president delivered a national pep talk full of bipartisan boilerplate that no one could fault, but neither would it dazzle. It contained some left-wing sentiment to remind his party base of his affections, but the sentiment was more like a gift-store coffee mug than a box of chocolates and bouquet of roses. Left or center, if you expected passion from this speech, you got a thin-lipped peck on the cheek from your Uncle Barry. Right or center, if you expected a slap in the face, you got that same thin-lipped kiss.
The tone was set when Obama praised free enterprise as the engine of innovation then reminded us that sometimes the market needs a little help. Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, there’s something to like in that comment, but not very much.
Obama spent much of the speech stressing the importance of innovation, calling this “our Sputnik moment” and promising investments in biomedical research, information technology, and especially green energy technologies. He reached back to Camelot to promise “the Apollo projects” of our time, then gave us biofuels, high-speed railways and electric cars. He kissed the left with a promise to eliminate the billions of dollars we give to oil companies and to use the money to invest in tomorrow’s energy technologies, then kissed the right by including nuclear power and clean coal.
Innovation can’t come from an uneducated work force, and Obama accordingly segued to education. He gave the left the reminder that Koreans call teachers “nation builders,” the right the promise to reward good teachers and get rid of bad ones. He spoke of the “race to the top” and permanent tuition tax credits, more college graduates and the Dream Act.
Next was infrastructure: high speed rail, fast internet, better phone service. The left’s peck on the cheek was the rail service; the right’s was the need to attract private investment. The government would give 80% of Americans access to high speed rail and make it possible for business to provide 98% of Americans with high-speed internet.
And so it went. Whether it was taxes or trade or spending, Obama delivered warm fuzzies all around. We’ll cut bad regulations and keep good ones. We should cut corporate tax rates and raise taxes on the rich. Government must live within its means, freezing discretionary spending while investing in the future. We’ll reorganize the federal government so that it can more efficiently help the American people.
The State of the Union Address was by no means a bad speech when viewed as a political effort, but as a guide to policy it was so vague as to be vacuous. There was no mention of costs or savings, only hope for a bright tomorrow. If we build it, they will come.
Innovation is wonderful as a process, meaningless as government policy. “Green energy” isn’t a precise objective as is putting a man on the moon; if ever you say “mission accomplished,” you might find that it’s more like Iraq.
Obama’s speech was like New Year’s resolutions of the “get fit, save for retirement” variety - no metrics for success, just good intentions and a conviction that we’ll do okay.
It’s only fair to point out that the State of the Union is a general plan that is fleshed out by detailed legislative initiatives during the year. It may be true that the address no longer serves much purpose beyond politics. If we really expect the address to be more than a pep talk, we probably deserve to be disappointed. In an age of low expectations, Obama hit the right notes.
God help America.
James Picht teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La. From the age of 6, he always knew what he wanted to be. Economist wasn’t it. But after accidentally falling in to it, he found that he liked it. Now he also likes raising his two children, being a husband to Lisa and taking pictures of trees in the middle of the night. He was dreading a “laundry lsit” SOTUA last night and was pleased to be disappointed. He’ll take a pep talk over a laundry list any time. He tweets and has a blog at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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