Wednesday, January 25, 2012

It's all very discouraging

Conservatives may delight in pointing out that President Obama's speech last year was full of small-bore policy proposals and ignored the signature achievement of his presidency - health care reform. They can point out that his pleas for increasing taxes on the rich wouldn't do much at all to address our looming debt problems and that the only solution will be to deeply increase taxes on those middle class Americans Obama pretends to want to do so much to protect. Conservatives can point out how he painted a rosy picture of the state of the economy today and took undeserved credit for any glimmerings of economic growth. They can laugh at his deliberate politicking of pointing to individuals from swing states who have supposedly benefited from Obama policies. This is what conservatives can say today. John Podhoretz is typical of this reaction from conservatives.
The candidate who suggested his victory in the Texas primary would be remembered as the moment at which the waters of the ocean would literally begin to recede has entirely lost his capacity to inspire — or to frighten his rivals — by his oratorical gifts alone.

Without that force, and without much of a record to run on, he instead turned the classic State of the Union laundry list into his own personal gift registry. If Congress wants to be nice to him and to the American people, he said, it will send him various bills with lots of goodies in them, and when they arrive, all he’ll have to do is sign for them.

Please. The president knows the horrifying reality of the mounting deficit and the unprecedented debt, and the nightmarish charts showing the public sector eating up the entirety of the national GDP over the next two decades. Even if he succeeds in ending the Bush tax cuts at the end of this year, the windfall to the Treasury will be eaten up instantly by existing demands.

And yet, he proposed no fewer than six new federal projects in the first half-hour of the speech. You get the sense that even the liberal congressmen and senators standing and applauding have no real expectation that any of those proposals will ever, or could ever, become law.

The president whose signature pieces of legislation will cost the Treasury more than $2 trillion — and who did not succeed in creating an explosion of economic growth — is in a terrible position to propose new spending plans. He already tried it last September in his “pass this bill now” speech, and that effort was stillborn.
Rich Lowry sounds the same note.
Don't worry, America. There's nothing that ails this country that can't be made right by a catalogue of piddling proposals that will be forgotten tomorrow--and oh yeah, more taxes on the rich. Such was the message of President Obama's State of the Union address.

It made Bill Clinton's notoriously endless lists of poll-tested banalities look like artistry by comparison. It was light and forgettable, so insubstantial it could have floated off the teleprompter. It was spend more here, create a new program there, carve out a new subsidy in the tax code over there--and repeat as necessary, for over an hour.

The president steered clear of some of the nation's gravest domestic questions. You would never know we are accumulating debt at a $1.3 trillion annual clip. You would never know that health care costs are soaring and a vast political and constitutional fight is ongoing over his health care law (mentioned once, only very briefly, in passing). You would never know that Medicare and Social Security will soon be groaning under the coming wave of baby boomer retirements. You would never know the tax code is a hideously complex, economically inefficient monstrosity.

All of that was left aside, so the president could strike an uplifting, inoffensive tone proposing a raft of superficially unobjectionable new government actions. It was one thing for Bill Clinton to take this tack in the late 90s when the economy was roaring. It was evasive and irresponsible for President Obama to do it now in our current straits.
But I think all those points, while extremely valid, may not matter. I tried to listen to Obama as a swing voter would. I always assign my Government and Politics students to watch the State of the Union and I tried to watch it through their eyes. They might be mostly 10th graders, but they're smart and interested in learning about how the government works. In a way, they are proxies for swing voters who don't know or understand much about public policy but will vote and will vote based on their impressions rather than any actual understanding of the long-term impact of what politicians do. And I just bet that they will have been impressed by Obama's speech.

He sounds plausible when he talks about his proposals. And he delivers a set speech very well. His demonization of the wealthy is appealing. People don't understand the impact of those proposed policies on the economy such as helping homeowners refinance their homes; they just hear that they're going to save money because of Obama. They won't notice that he didn't do any bragging about Obamacare. When he chides Republicans for partisanship and gridlock, they will forget that he had a filibuster-proof Senate for the first two years of his presidency and passed through everything he wanted. When he talks about signing off on fewer regulations, they won't think about how it isn't the number of regulations, but the impact of those regulations he signed and how they've contributed to making this the slowest recovery from a recession since the Great Depression. Just compare the rate of recovery from the recession that Ronald Reagan inherited and that which Obama encountered.
All of the criticisms are true. But conservatives need a good standard bearer to make those arguments. And in Mitch Daniels, we saw someone who could do that. His response was a full-throated defense of a conservative approach to building the economy without turning everything over to the government. Daniels acknowledged all that Obama avoided about the reality of what we're facing. He was able to explain how the very policies Obama is so proud of are what is holding the economy back from recovery. Daniels was my first choice of a wished-for candidate and listening to him last night just got me more depressed about those who are in the race instead of all the better candidates who decided to sit this race out.

I can't see Mitt Romney being successful at making conservative arguments when he hasn't been able to do so in the five years he's been running for president. Newt Gingrich can make the arguments, but I still find him too undependable and erratic to wish to see him as our candidate against Obama. Gingrich may be full of braggadocio of how he'd demolish Obama in debates but then he goes and whines about the audience not being allowed to whoop and cheer during the debates as if that were a freedom of speech issue. No, it's the same policy that will hold in the presidential debates in the general election. Is Gingrich admitting that he can't perform as well in the exact same format that will be in any debate between the Republican candidate and Obama? And while I think Santorum can make those arguments, I think a Santorum candidacy would become all about social issues instead of Obama's record.

So I'm feeling very discouraged today. I fear that Obama will snooker enough people to win reelection and we'll have another four years of his disastrous policies and sanctimonious self-praise. Conservatives warned against what an Obama presidency would mean and it's been worse than we predicted yet that was insufficient in 2008. I am scared that, despite having lived through the reality of what a President Obama had done, he'll be able to snooker enough of those swing voters who don't pay close attention and just hear his soaring rhetoric and forget what that rhetoric has bought us in the past three years.

UPDATE: Even if the Republican candidates are a discouraging group, the folks at the RNC do a find job of taking it to the President. They just issued this short clip to show how Obama has been using the same rhetoric and making the same proposals in his State of the Union speeches. It's rather startling how he repeats himself.
Well, if first you don't succeed...