State of the Usual

Why Obama's centrist re-branding is really smoke and mirrors.

Early on during his State of the Union address last night, Barack Obama acknowledged the results of last November’s election. He called for unity and compromise, themes that have dominated his political career because they appeal to the American character. Americans of every political stripe want to believe that we’re all basically the same sort of good-hearted people at our cores and that we all aspire to the same sort of end results. A middle road that leads to worthy ends, in other words, can always be found if we work hard enough to discover it. This President understands that portion of the American character better than perhaps anyone else who has occupied the Oval Office, and – as he did during the 2008 presidential campaign – he warmed to the familiar theme once again last night:

“What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow,” he said. “I believe we can. I believe we must. That’s what the people who sent us here expect of us. With their votes, they’ve determined that governing will now be a shared responsibility between parties. New laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans. We will move forward together, or not at all – for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics.”

And then, having declared the need for America to pursue a bipartisan, middle-of-the-road future going forward, the president proceeded to outline his vision of that future – a course in which “compromise” consists almost entirely of conservatives and libertarians abandoning their ideas and ideals in order to support the progressive agenda. Obama’s version of “compromise” involves even more increases in government spending – although such expenditures will hereafter be rebranded as “investments” – along with the nation continuing to ignore the 800 pound gorillas that are America’s entitlement programs and continuing to pretend that Obamacare is both affordable and desirable.

The president declared that America needs to reinvent itself, but then proceeded to say that the only conduit for such a rebirth is the federal government. The only way to kick start our economy, Obama declared, was to take taxpayer dollars and use them to seed a “green economy” and to hire more teachers who will train future generations. It was a rather remarkable message, given the mood of the nation. It’s as if Barack Obama is congenitally unable to comprehend the basic argument that is at the heart of economic discussions in the United States today: is the government better equipped to create prosperity than the free enterprise system? This is, of course, a more subtle argument than a simple declaration or “choosing of sides”. There is an ideal balance between governmental authorities ensuring that a level playing field actually exists, and the environment of freedom of thought and innovation in which entrepreneurs make the most of such autonomy.

Obama is perfectly willing to tip his hat in the direction of American entrepreneurs, so long as those businessmen and businesswomen aren’t too successful. The president praised small businesses and acknowledged their role as job creators. But, at the same time, Obama stuck to the progressive playbook, declaring that “big oil companies” and insurance companies were the enemy and deserved to be punished. In the president’s world, there is nothing wrong with a ma and pa enterprise making a twenty per cent return on a one million dollar investment. But, if a large oil company realizes a five per cent return on a one hundred billion dollar investment, there’s something terribly wrong in the world. The term “economy of scale” – which is so prevalent in the business world – seems to be a matter of mystery in the public sector.

Far from being a message of the kind of “hope” that Obama trademarked in 2008, this state of the union address was little more than an exercise in mouthing tired, discredited platitudes. The economy isn’t going to rebound as a result of how many unneeded solar panels some guy in Pennsylvania is able to produce. Meaningful deficit reduction cannot happen until the imbalances that define the Medicare and Social Security are addressed. If the nation in going to move forward together, much less as one, we’ve got some tough policy decisions to make.

Barack Obama didn’t address any of those tough decisions during his second State of the Union address. Instead, he pretty much stuck to the party line. We should expect nothing more from a classically-trained Chicago politician.  The wheels are coming off of the train, but the politicians at that wheel always seem to be the last to notice.

America has a clear choice to make: does the nation invest in government (though its support of higher tax rates) or does it invest in the notion of free enterprise, though a refusal to accept more government? That answer to that question will define where we have been and where we are going.