The Audacity of Obama’s State of the Union

Last night, I suffered through Obama’s speech. I noticed the overarching theme was: in 2010, the administration will finally getting around to all it promised for 2009, as well as a whole other year worth of miracles.

He begins by taking credit for saving the economy from a second Great Depression. “[W]e acted, immediately and aggressively. And one year later, the worst of the storm has passed.” Except for the massive unemployment, which he notes in his next breath. Wasn’t the worst of the storm the pain of the American people? Or was it the so-called credit freeze that Obama seems to imply is still happening: “[W]hen you talk to small-business owners in places like Allentown, Pennsylvania, or Elyria, Ohio, you find out that even though banks on Wall Street are lending again, they’re mostly lending to bigger companies. Financing remains difficult for small-business owners across the country, even though they’re making a profit.”

Here’s another thing that doesn’t add up for me. Obama says, with some validity: “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.”

This is a decent point. Bush racked up the deficit with two off-budget wars, a bloated expansion of Medicare and tax cuts that did not correspond to any cuts in spending. And so what’s Obama propose to halt the deficit from spiraling yet more out of control?

We are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected, but all other discretionary government programs will.

Let me get this straight. Medicare and war profligacy brought on the crisis, and so we will “freeze” spending, except for Medicare and war—and also except for Social Security and Medicaid? Huh?

Yes, there is also the point that Bush cut taxes without cutting spending. But this is another thing Obama is prepared to do:

“[We] passed 25 different tax cuts.”

“[W]e’ll extend our middle-class tax cuts.”

“[L]et’s also eliminate all capital gains taxes on small-business investment and provide a tax incentive for all large businesses and all small businesses to invest in new plants and equipment.”

One can argue over whether Bush’s tax cuts or Obama’s tax cuts are more fair, more sensible, more substantive, or whatever. But the fact remains, from a fiscal responsibility perspective, both Bush’s and Obama’s tax cuts could be criticized for being political gimmicks amid a cascade of deficit spending.

On banking regulation, the president says he will not seek to “punish” the banks but will stand up to them. Not much mention here on the revolving door between Wall Street and the big banks and Washington, which Obama has only sought to widen.

Obama touts his escalation of war in Afghanistan, a war the U.S. should have never waged and should have in any event ended some time in 2001 or 2002, once it was clear Osama bin Laden had escaped. This war, of course, is being vastly expanded beyond what Bush indicated he would do with it, and it’s just as much a fiscal nightmare as Bush’s warmaking. As for Iraq, Obama is sticking by his promise to adhere to the time table set by the Status of Forces Agreement acceded to by Bush in late 2008. No sign of change there. And by avoiding the issues of contractors, the permanent military bases, what exactly non-combat soldiers are supposed to be doing there, he is taking credit for the status quo that he inherited.

Mr. Nobel Peace Prize champions his plan to combat nuclear proliferation. I’m all for governments disarming their nuclear stockpiles, and if the U.S. reduces its arsenal, that is good. But the way he has always played this issue is identical to the way others have: The U.S. will reduce its arsenal by a token amount, and forbid nations unapproved by the U.S. and other major powers from having such weapons at all, using sanctions and war as a means to stop other countries from getting the weapons they seek primarily to defend them against the U.S. empire. The promise of nuclear non-proliferation has already become an excuse to tighten sanctions on Iran, which the evidence indicates has no nuclear weapons program, and whose nuclear energy program is being heavily monitored by the IAEA. Consider the Bushian implications of this statement:

That’s why the international community is more united and the Islamic Republic of Iran is more isolated. And as Iran’s leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: They, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise.

This is a formula for war conducted by the U.S., a government whose policy is that “nothing is off the table”—i.e., we reserve the right to use nukes—to stop countries like Iran from getting nukes, even though there is no credible evidence they are even pursuing nukes. In the name of stopping nukes, the U.S. is essentially threatening, as a supposed last resort, nuclear war.

When Obama condemns “those nations that insist on violating international agreements in pursuit of nuclear weapons,” we can also assume he does not mean to include Israel, which is not a signatory of the non-proliferation treaty, and which everyone with a pulse knows has nukes.

He doesn’t seem to want to talk much at all about one of his broken promises—the closing of Guantánamo and restoring of habeas corpus rights to America’s detainees. His indefinite detention policy is a monstrosity, one of the most important features of his presidency in terms of the policies actually implemented that have long-term consequences for the American system. After claiming deference to the “separation of powers”—although I can’t find this in the prepared transcripts—Obama attacked the Supreme Court for having “reversed a century of law” with its decision against campaign finance restrictions. But he doesn’t mention his own, and much more unambiguously disastrous, attacks on precedent and the rule of law—his invocation of “state secrets” and “sovereign immunity” to protect government wiretapping, his efforts to subvert the Freedom of Information Act to keep government torture under wraps. Instead of focusing on these concrete accomplishments of his, he simply promises another year-worth of government solutions.

Indeed, Obama promises everything else he’s always promised, almost all of it bad—a tough climate change treaty, more banking regulation, Obamacare at last, repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, subsidies for community colleges, more Veterans benefits, more national standards for education, more “public works” projects and government subsidies for green jobs. He offers “a $10,000 tax credit for four years of college,” which will only drive up the cost of tuition, and ominously proposes a way to get people even more oriented toward working for the state:

Let’s tell another 1 million students that, when they graduate, they will be required to pay only 10 percent of their income on student loans, and all of their debt will be forgiven after 20 years, and forgiven after 10 years if they choose a career in public service.

This will only increase the cost of education and lure people into working for the ever-growing government sector, which is bloated enough, while neglecting the American private sector that the president himself says is and always will be “the true engine of job creation in this country.”

None of it adds up. More promises. More spending. More war. More politically motivated tinkering of the tax code. It is true he has brought change to Washington. He is not Bush. He is Bush on steroids.

  • Catalyst