Obama's State of the Union address reminds us how fast things can change in Washington—and how much remains the same.
The president’s State of the Union address was a reminder of how fast things can change in Washington—and how much remains the same inside the White House.
Some of the changes were visible and obvious—the absence of Nancy Pelosi and her permanent grin behind the dais, the growing number of Republicans in the chamber, the scrambled seating arrangement that had the welcome effect of tamping down the competing choruses of cheering and jeering.
But other changes—and the evidence of continuity—are better identified by comparing this address with the president’s 2009 and 2010 addresses.
In his 2009 address to Congress (technically not a State of the Union), the president lectured Congress and the American people about how they “managed to spend more money and pile up more debt, both as individuals and through our Government, than ever before.”
Of course, in the intervening months between then and now, he proceeded to go on the biggest spending binge in American history: expending $862 billion on a stimulus that stimulated nothing but the government sector, spawning a $1-trillion healthcare behemoth that will surely grow bigger than his actuaries predicted or imagined, and adding an unprecedented $1.4 trillion in deficit spending.
But yesterday, just 23 months later, he declared, “We need to take responsibility for our deficit” and “rein in our deficits.” He said he was open to “painful cuts” and “willing to eliminate whatever we can honestly afford to do without.” He even proposed a five-year freeze on annual domestic spending at current levels. “This would reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade.”
Now that’s change we can believe in. Given that the House just hours earlier passed a measure rolling back spending to FY08 levels, there would seem to be a compromise in the offing. And given that the House controls the purse strings—and budget- and deficit-cutters control the House—the House majority would seem to have some leverage.
Of course, cutting spending will be difficult if Congress keeps, in the president’s words, “larding up legislation with pet projects.” That helps explain why he called for “earmark reform” in 2010. This year he was even sterner, warning that “if a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it.”
That’s sounds like the Barack Obama of 2008. Of course, as president, he had no problem signing the stimulus bill or the healthcare bill, both loaded with pork and pet projects. One suspects that the president’s tough talk on earmarks may have something to do with the new makeup of Congress.
Another thing that can be attributed to the new makeup of Congress is the president’s slightly chastened posture. In 2009, after all, he was the “I won” president; during the 2011 State of Union, he was the “we can work together” president.
Some of the changes—both rhetorical and actual—reflected in the 2011 address make your eyes roll uncontrollably. For example, the president boasted in yesterday's address that he’s “ordered a review of government regulations.”
Really? The president’s healthcare-reform law creates 159 new sub-agencies, committees, bureaus and commissions, each with a regulatory role. Likewise, the financial overhaul that was passed in mid-2010 creates 243 brand new federal rulemaking authorities, spawning thousands of new pages in the Federal Register. And the Heritage Foundation has found that in 2010 “an unprecedented 43 major new regulations were imposed by Washington. And based on reports from government regulators themselves, the total cost of these rules topped $26.5 billion.”
The president also displayed a Clintonian level of brazenness during his State of the Union address by taking credit for tax cuts he once campaigned against—“Thanks to the tax cuts we passed, Americans’ paychecks are a little bigger today [and] every business can write off the full cost of the new investments they make this year”—before calling for those same tax cuts to be eliminated. “We simply cannot afford a permanent extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans,” he said.
So, in 2008 and 2009, he was against the extension of those tax rates—they are not “cuts” after seven years on the books. He was then for the extension in December 2010 (because he signed it. He was still for it in the first third of his 2011 State of the Union address. And he was against it in the final third of his 2011 State of the Union address.
That brings us to what remains the same inside the White House. President Obama believes in government. He believes government knows best how to spend the American people’s hard-earned money, how to allocate resources, solve problems, create jobs, and, of course, “invest.”
For President Obama, “invest” as a euphemism for government spending.
In 2009, it was a promise “to invest in areas like energy, health care, and education.” He talked about government’s role in building railroads, creating “a system of public high schools,” laying down highways, sending a man to the Moon, and triggering “an explosion of technology.” Thanks to his recovery plan, he boasted, “we will double this nation's supply of renewable energy…lay down thousands of miles of power lines… [and] put Americans to work making our homes and buildings more efficient.”
In 2010, it was “invest in our people.” The president vowed to use government to “create the conditions necessary for businesses to expand and hire more workers…building the infrastructure of tomorrow.”
And in 2011, it’s a promise to “invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology;” a success story that begins “with the help of a government loan;” a future dependent on “100,000 new teachers;” a vision for “thousands of good jobs for the hard-hit construction industry” to “put more Americans to work repairing crumbling roads and bridges;” “investments in innovation, education and infrastructure.”
In a Freudian slip, John McCain once called Barack Obama “Senator Government.” Today, he’s President Government.
Alan W. Dowd writes on politics and policy.