Thursday, January 28, 2010

I Got Sucked Into the State of The Union

I really dislike listening to the State of the Union address. I think it takes too long because the presidents I've listened to go on long rambling examples of their achievements.

After a year in office, I have to say, President Obama is not as smart as I thought he was. And tonight's speech went a ways to confirming that. Why do I say this?

Well, let's look at what most of America is suffering from. Number one on that list has to be the economy. Did he talk about this? Yes, he did. But he started off right away saying "One year ago, I took office amid two wars, an economy rocked by severe recession, a financial system on the verge of collapse, and a government deeply in debt."

Gotta love that for leadership. Instead of saying, "We have a problem and here's how I'm going to try and fix it," we get the man in the Oval Office saying "I didn't cause the problem." To which I have to say: Grow the frak up Mr. President. It does not matter who caused the mess. Fix it and stop bellyaching that it was someone else's mess.

After waxing somewhat eloquently about the effects of the recession, which he finishes by stating "They are tired of the partisanship and the shouting and the pettiness. They know we can't afford it. Not now." Really, is this the moment to get into it? To make the veiled insult that its wrong to advocate one's side?

Let's stop the notion that bipartisanship is the only way forward. Its become the Democrat excuse for not getting anything done beyond collecting their pay checks. The Democrats begged for a chance to be the government. They need to start acting like they are the party in power and not some clueless gaggle of 1st year law students.

So what does he propose will help with jobs? A tax on the banks. Huh? This is the way to tell people you are going to do something about creating jobs... by going after the banks. Who wrote this speech? Does anyone there understand how to structure an argument?

Alright, so as you are waiting for how the Obama Administration is going to help with the jobs, you are then treated to statistics about jobs saved. This seems rather ironic when you take into account that unemployment is north of 10 %.

After patting himself on the back, President Obama finally reveals how he is going to help people get jobs. His plan is,
So tonight, I'm proposing that we take $30 billion of the money Wall Street banks have repaid and use it to help community banks give small businesses the credit they need to stay afloat. I am also proposing a new small business tax credit - one that will go to over one million small businesses who hire new workers or raise wages. While we're at it, let's also eliminate all capital gains taxes on small business investment; and provide a tax incentive for all businesses, large and small, to invest in new plants and equipment.

Next, we can put Americans to work today building the infrastructure of tomorrow. From the first railroads to the interstate highway system, our nation has always been built to compete. There's no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains, or the new factories that manufacture clean energy products.
The first part is interesting as an idea. However, can anyone tell me what qualifies as a community bank? In my community, most of the banks that are around are either large National Banks (i.e. Chase, Wells Fargo, etc.) or a few overseas banks that do business here in the State. Then there is the question of how one insures that the money will be used for small businesses, rather than to just give community banks the ability to reward failures. Will this mean some sort of oversight? Or is this going to be like TARP where we throw money down the drain?

As far as the infrastructure proposal goes, that is just old hat. Its what he ran on in the campaign in part. In fact, he is simply borrowing the idea from the old WPA that FDR ran. Would I like to see improvements in my country's infrastructure? Hell yes. Do I think he is serious about it given his track record so far? Not in the least.

The frustrating thing about this president is that it demands Congress to do something. However, he does not lay out a clear idea of what it should be. President Obama says "I want a jobs bill on my desk without delay." Ok, fine. How about setting out some criteria for the jobs bill. Or is it simply that any pork projects that makes it through committee is good enough for a jobs bill?

Then he meanders through the platitudes that every modern President states (i.e. that America is great; that other countries are getting smarter, etc.) before finally getting to his next objective: the financial system. But while he is calling for reform, he once again does not say what the reform should look like. Its maddening listening to him because he never states what he wants to see in a bill from Congress until after Congress has always highjacked the agenda and managed to turn it into another political fight.

Following this demand (or plea) for a jobs bill, President Obama then began to talk about gridlock in Washington. No, he was not talking about the beltway. He was talking about the stall on reforming the economic system.

President Obama stated,
From the day I took office, I've been told that addressing our larger challenges is too ambitious; such an effort would be too contentious. I've been told that our political system is too gridlocked, and that we should just put things on hold for a while.
For those who make these claims, I have one simple question: How long should we wait? How long should America put its future on hold?
Coming from someone who did not have large majorities in both Houses of Congress, this might be a real question. Coming from this President, who had a fillibuster-proof Senate and a large majority in the House of Representatives, it seems somewhat disingenuous. If you had a plan, why not present it? Why did you wait over a year, piss away a fillibuster-proof Senate, and accomplish nothing before saying "hey, maybe we ought to start acting".

President Obama then continues on his meander through his call to reform the economic system, touching on the banks. Then suddenly, his switches gears to advocating more funding for basic research.


Did anyone else get whiplash listening to this speech?

Once again, he outlines a problem, calls for reform. But utterly fails to say what should be done while at the same time warning against an evil (in this case "Now, the House has already passed financial reform with many of these changes. (Applause.) And the lobbyists are trying to kill it.") He then goes on to state that "And if the bill that ends up on my desk does not meet the test of real reform, I will send it back until we get it right. We've got to get it right."

Again, Mr. President, what should the bill do? Is the House one which he is referring to "real reform" or is it one that you will send back. Care to take a stand on something definite other than some airy concept? Nope. So we go on with this speech.

I am not going to dissect his next statements on green jobs and energy. It basically looks like the speech-writing crew cribbed form the campaign remarks.

For one of the few times, he manages to provide a link between one section of the speech. He made a somewhat effective argument about how even if you doubt climate change, greater energy efficiency is in our economic interest. Now, whoever wrote this portion of speech might have a brain. Because following on this link, the President finally makes a specific policy statement when he proclaimed,

Third, we need to export more of our goods. (Applause.) Because the more products we make and sell to other countries, the more jobs we support right here in America. (Applause.) So tonight, we set a new goal: We will double our exports over the next five years, an increase that will support two million jobs in America. (Applause.) To help meet this goal, we're launching a National Export Initiative that will help farmers and small businesses increase their exports, and reform export controls consistent with national security. (Applause.)

Problem. Goal. Means to achieving the goal. Its not so hard to do is it Mr. President?

Of course, if you have increased exports, you are going to need someone skilled enough to make them. And to do this, the President started to talk about education reform. And this is something I've been thinking about for a while. Apparently, in order to succeed, we need better educated people. However, instead of increasing the standards of our primary and secondary education, we need to funnel more people to community colleges, because community colleges are the panacea apparently.

(Now this is my radical idea. Let's demand more out of our existing educational system. Other countries seem to be able to turn out high school graduates who are skilled enough to get a job without having to attend a further 2 to 4 years of formal education. For some reason, its ok to expect colleges to do the job that public elementary and secondary schools are unable to do.)

Then to help people to pay community colleges and universities, President Obama suggest we stop incentivizing the private banks from making school loans. Instead he proposes that the subsidy, which is part of the incentive of the banks to loan to people, become a $10,000 grant to each person to pay for college. If this was 1975, maybe that would help. This year, the average in-state tuition for a four year college, per year, is $7,020. It is expected to rise again, probably by about 4 to 6%. Combined with a decline in the consumer price index, and the price is even larger. So what President Obama has done is proposed a grant which will cover about 1.5 years of a 4 year education. Then he hopes that there will be enough Pell Grants (remember, he wants to increase those also) to go around to make up the difference.

By the way, how are we to pay for all this when the government is already in a deficit larger than the last time we had to save the world? When the dollar is weaker than its been ... oh... forever? When the government simultaneously want a huge healthcare reform bill which contains carve-outs for those with the political pull, ensuring that the reform is underfunded?

At least President Obama recognizes that higher education is expensive. However, his solution for this is,
That's why last year I asked Vice President Biden to chair a task force on middle-class families. That's why we're nearly doubling the child care tax credit, and making it easier to save for retirement by giving access to every worker a retirement account and expanding the tax credit for those who start a nest egg. That's why we're working to lift the value of a family's single largest investment –- their home. The steps we took last year to shore up the housing market have allowed millions of Americans to take out new loans and save an average of $1,500 on mortgage payments.

How do retirement accounts pay for education? Aren't they for people when they retire? Is that not the whole point?

Then, still not answering how he will help people afford college, he trumpets his plan to help people refinance their mortgages. I wonder if anyone has informed how well the Obama foreclosure relief plan has worked. (Answer: Not very well)

Then he, finally, talks about healthcare reform. He recites the same mantra that politicians have been stating since Bill Clinton ran for office (or as some have stated, since the Nixon Administration). He names the usual bogeyman identified by Democratic party (the insurance companies. And in case you wondered, the usual bogeyman for healthcare from the GOP perspective, its the lawyers). He trumpets the Democratic plan.

President Obama then turns to talking about deficits. And unsurprisingly, he lays all the ills at the feet of the President Bush. In his address, President Obama states,
At the beginning of the last decade, the year 2000, America had a budget surplus of over $200 billion. (Applause.) By the time I took office, we had a one-year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade. Most of this was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts, and an expensive prescription drug program. On top of that, the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion hole in our budget. All this was before I walked in the door.
Yes, the Bush Administration ran up so large debt. But interestingly enough, in many cases, the Democrats voted to approve it. In fact, since 2006, the Democrats have been the party in control of the House and Senate. Yet, everything that President Bust wanted done, got done.

Perhaps if then-Senator Obama had voted "no", instead of "present", on some fo those bills, we would not have the deficit we have today. Radical notion.

Here's another one: it matters not who ran up the deficit. The deficit is a fact. We need to deal with it, not place blame. Let the historians do that.

Then comes President Obama's "big" policy of the night: the freeze on US Government spending. Apparently, they (whoever they are) will go through line by line and eliminate programs. This should, President Obama tells us, save us about $20 billion. Apparently, he wants to make up the rest from those evil oil companies and investment fund managers, as well as those people making over $250,000.00. Because apparently, they are the ones who caused all the problems. Or something.

But then comes for my favorite line: "Now, even after paying for what we spent on my watch, we'll still face the massive deficit we had when I took office." Paying for what we spent on his watch? According to some calculations, that could run as low as $787 billion or high as $3.27 trillion. Either number is not going to be paid off anytime soon.

President Obama then meandered in his fashion to identifying the next bogey man: the lobbyists! And how his administration has taken bold steps by publishing on the web every visitor to the White House. Great.

Now comes, for me, the part of the speech I have the most mixed feelings about. President Obama, in his attack on lobbyists, stated that,
But we can't stop there. It's time to require lobbyists to disclose each contact they make on behalf of a client with my administration or with Congress. It's time to put strict limits on the contributions that lobbyists give to candidates for federal office.
With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests –- including foreign corporations –- to spend without limit in our elections. (Applause.) I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. (Applause.) They should be decided by the American people. And I'd urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to correct some of these problems.
It's not that he called out the Supreme Court in the State of Union. Nor is it that Justice Alito disagreed with President Obama's characterization of the decision. My problem is the balance between freedom of speech, and freedom from corruption in our political life. On the one hand, the money which corporations and unions can bring to bear in political race is substantial and corrupting. On the other hand, how can we say that a type of political speech is not protected.

I was not happy with McCain-Feingold. I am equally unhappy with the Supreme Court's decision. The question is, what is the solution? I don't know.

The president then went on to decry politics as usual in Washington. Complaining that well-qualified public servant's confirmations were being held up by extremists in the parties. Did the speech writers take this from one of the Bush addresses?

Oddly enough, he finally calls out his own compatriots, stating, "To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills." Of course, he ruins that call to action by immediately serving up the excuse that if nothing gets done its because the Republicans are fillibustering everything.

Can this man please cowboy up at some point? Or is it beyond him? But going on...

Finally, two-thirds of the way through the speech, President Obama reaches terrorism. Or as he calls it "security". Oddly enough, President Obama trumpets the body count that the U.S. military has run up this year. He does not state that the U.S. military has been victorious in Iraq, though he takes credit for troops being withdrawn. But he does manage to tar our image with allegations of torture.

Then he goes on to trumpet his decision to add troops to Afghanistan. Of course, by the time the troops get there, it will be time for them to leave, since he is still calling for a handover of Afghanistan in 2011. I understand that this man has never served in the military, something which I do not believe is a requirement to lead this country. However, could he at least have read Charlie Wilson's War? Maybe watched the movie? He might have learned something about quitting before the job gets done.

President Obama then goes on to trumpet one of his favorite tropes when talking about national security: eliminating nuclear weapons. In the State of the Union, he mentions working together with Russia to reduce stockpiles. He mentions securing nuclear material to prevent terrorists from getting nuclear weapons. He announces his intention to further turn the screws on North Korea's nuclear program.

As for Iran, all he says is: "They, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise." Translation: we'll impose ineffective sanctions on you and hope that Israel does not handle the job for us.

Then he moves into civil rights territory, funnelling from corruption and discrimination overseas to what happens in the United States. President Obama promises that the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice will prosecute cases once more. That's great, but is it going to be a color blind prosecution? Or is it going to be free passes for the Black Panthers and their ilk because they, as minorities, cannot possibly be guilty of violations of the law?

Let's try this on for size. How about the professionals at the DOJ decide who gets prosecuted and who does not. When political appointees make the decision, the DOJ loses credibility.

The speech mericifully ends with a meditation on getting back to his basic campaign promise: Change. However, all he offers are lofty ideals, with no firm goals set.

If Toby Ziegler ever saw this speech on his desk, I shiver to think what would have happened to the communications staffer who drafted it. In one fell swoop, President Obama managed to make President Bush look both eloquent and thoughtful. This speech was all over the map. It lacked, like the Administration which produced it, a clear sense of what is to be accomplished beyond lofty ideals. This speech, to me, represents a man who got to his goal, and then realized he had no idea of how to actually operate the office to which he was entrusted.

Don't believe me? Watch it again. I did.

What's worse, the political payback by the hardcore of the Republican party is something I fear. At the rate that President Obama is going, he will be a one termer. He will be vying with President Carter as the worst President of the United States since the Civil War.

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