President Obama’s SOTU address was politically shrewd, but ideologically circumscribed. He sought to box in his Republican rivals by posing political choices that cannot redound to their benefit. The sight of Republicans in unanimity deciding that America’s largest banks not be taxed, in both senses of the word, with the obligations of corporate citizenship after the non-corporate citizens of the nation had saved them from extinction will linger through election day. He also called attention to the dysfunctional nature of the Senate: its extra-constitutional de facto supermajority requirement (unique among democracies, especially egregious in a bicameral legislation with an additional choke point of a presidential veto, and within a body which is already undemocratic in that the smallest and largest states have equal representation); and the old-boy tradition of “holds” which serve to weaken the executive branch of all presidents in order to cater to the narcissistic whims of a single petulant Senator.
The Republicans’ chronic use of a politically cost-free filibuster has, essentially, ended Obama’s domestic presidency. So this speech was really an opportunity to begin to change how the political culture thinks about the enormous challenges facing our country. But other than the bank tax proposal and mild chiding about Senate obstructionism, Obama sought to engage Republicans not by demarcating a sharp line of policy contrast, but, rather, by essentially conceding to Republican arguments regarding budget freezes, tax cuts, nuclear power, offshore oil drilling, and even in the smallness of his jobs proposal. His stimulus plan, as AEI’s top economist noted in an analysis supported by other professional economists, added several points to the nation’s GDP, and prevented ever more severe unemployment. However, many Americans don’t grasp the counterintuitive notion of the necessity of government spending to generate demand at a time when they themselves aren’t spending (precisely the problem!). And Obama, at the time of the stimulus and during the SOTU, did nothing to disabuse voters of their misconceptions. He has allowed the inane Republican narrative that spending cuts during a massive recession or depression—precisely of the kind that plunged the nation into a second crippling recession in 1937 – are wise. Similarly, the budget freeze will only cripple his economic program and, by excluding military spending, only add to the fantasy that the we can ever eliminate the large, structural deficits that face us in the future without reducing military spending (eliminating all discretionary domestic spending—the parks, the roads, the environmental protection, the home heating oil for the poor, all of it—would by itself merely cut 500 billion or so from the deficit).
As always, this moderation will be viewed as the second coming of Danton. The health care plan, whose passage he again urged, is essentially identical to that passed by a Republican governor in Massachusetts, and supported by both the Republican Senator-elect from that state and 68% of its voters, according to a new Washington Post poll. It is also less comprehensive and liberal in every respect than the 1994 Clinton plan, while taking ideas from the Republican alternative of that year. Indeed, it is a less liberal plan than that proposed by Richard Nixon in 1973! Still, we hear the tired refrain about a “government takeover of health care.” How could that be? Roughly half of health care has already been taken over by the government—the VA and Medicare—and the citizens love them. The other half—the employer provided part—is precisely what the bill, unfortunately, leaves untouched—yes, the part whose costs are growing even faster than the government programs.
So faced with a childish political culture, exemplified by his conservative political adversaries, who cannot even properly categorize Obama’s pragmatic, moderate liberalism for what it is, Obama himself has conceded even more ideological ground to these adversaries. He accepts with only marginal modifications the essential rhetorical frame that, since Ronald Reagan, they have constructed to explain American politics and economics: render unto the Market what is the Market’s, and render unto the Market what is the State’s and civil society’s.
Only once during his presidency has Obama given a speech – his Lincoln Day address in Springfield, Ill. last February – which sought to do what Reagan did during his first SOTU address in 1982 (and on many other occasions): make an argument not merely for discrete policies but on behalf of his world view. In Obama’s case, this speech advocated the use of the State as the vehicle for the collective aspirations of the American people, and thus to advance the aims of social justice. Conservatives should feel relieved that Obama—who is at his best when he is calmly professorial, rather than hortatory—has decided to drop this defense of liberalism from his presidency, and merely try to soften the edges of a Reaganist narrative he has decided to let stand.
Conservatism has failed, but its story lingers on.