Long ago, in a different America, Francis Fukuyama wrote about the end of history in a 1989 essay that turned into a book three years later – explaining the end of history as “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Everything was settled. The Cold War was over. Communism was dead – in fact, every other system of organizing human society for the greater good was dead too. The job now was to find a way to have everyone settle down and deal with the inevitable – everyone was going to be like us. They might not like that but they’d eventually see the light, or we’d help them see the light – for their own good, because we’re nice guys and do have the only proven way to run things. That’s what was in the air. Those of us who were guests at the June 1990 graduation at West Point heard Colin Powell explain to the graduating seniors that they needn’t worry, there was honor to be gained in managing worldwide peace – and there’d be some mopping up of course.
It was all nonsense. Two years later all those young Second Lieutenants were leading their units driving Saddam Hussein’s large but rather ineffective army out of Kuwait, and then rolling up toward Baghdad, and there hasn’t been a moment of peace since. Now the Second Lieutenant in the family is a full-bird Colonel, and after many tours in Iraq, with ever-increasing responsibilities for getting things right, he will be off to Afghanistan in a few weeks. History didn’t end – the players just changed – and Fukuyama admitted as much, and went on to split with the crew who hadn’t figured that out. There would be no New American Century – others wanted the century to be theirs, and they were pretty nasty about it. Nothing is inevitable. History is never settled, once and for all.
Fukuyama should have written about politics. That’s where apparently serious people tell us that if we elect them, or if certain laws are passed, or others are voted down, history will end – there will be peace and prosperity and security, and a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage. No, really – in 1928, a circular published by the Republican Party claimed that if Herbert Hoover won there would be just that. The markets crashed the next year – so no chicken and no new car for you. Sorry. Politics is all about promising the end of history, in a good way of course, when it’s clear that history will not cooperate at all. Fukuyama could set them straight. He learned his lesson.
No one will set these guys straight. Obama just gave the first State of the Union address of his second term, suggesting that, if certain things to be done, then things would be all better. History might not end, and there might not be that chicken and the new car, but things would be different, and settled. Republicans argue that if Obama gets what he wants, well, history will certainly end, but not in a good way – America will be screwed forever. Neither is true, but that’s how they talk.
Obama was on fire in his State of the Union:
President Obama, seeking to put the prosperity and promise of the middle class at the heart of his second-term agenda, called on Congress on Tuesday night to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, saying that would lift millions out of poverty and energize the economy.
In an assertive State of the Union address that fleshed out the populist themes of his inauguration speech, Mr. Obama declared it was “our generation’s task” to “reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth – a rising, thriving middle class.”
“Every day,” he said, “we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation: How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills to get those jobs? And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?”
There were lots of initiatives, everything from education and energy to public works projects. It was a laundry list, as these things tend to be, but it all added up to investments that would really goose our still pathetic recovery by helping those in the middle class, who really do have to spend more money, so American corporations, pretty much fresh out of customers, can thrive, and so tax revenues can recover. Let the middle class have a chance to have a bit more money to spend. It’s good for the economy.
There was more of course:
He urged lawmakers to act on immigration, climate change, budget negotiations, and, above all, on gun violence, delivering an emotional appeal for stricter controls that drew on recent tragedies like the schoolhouse massacre in Newtown, Conn.
“They deserve a vote,” Mr. Obama declared over and over, gesturing to victims of various shootings, who were scattered through the audience.
Cool, but some things are inevitable:
Republicans quickly rejected Mr. Obama’s activist approach, saying it would inevitably translate into higher taxes and an overweening government role, strangling economic growth and deepening the nation’s fiscal hole.
It was the same old argument. The government is useful, or can be. No, the government is useless and it should get out of the way. No, it is useful:
Mr. Obama pledged to work with states to provide high-quality preschool to every child in America. And he recycled a proposal to help homeowners refinance their mortgages. None of these proposals, Mr. Obama said, would add to the deficit, since they were consistent with the budget deal of 18 months ago. “It’s not a bigger government we need,” he said, “but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.”
Mr. Obama also signaled, however, that the era of single-minded deficit-cutting should end. He noted that the recent agreements on taxes and spending reduced the deficit by $2.5 trillion, more than halfway toward the $4 trillion in reductions that economists say would put the nation’s finances on a sustainable course.
Somewhere Paul Krugman was smiling, and Obama also said he had no use for all the upcoming automatic spending cuts on the military and all other programs – “These sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardize our military readiness” – and screw ordinary citizen too. As for the rest, it was boilerplate:
On climate change, Mr. Obama endorsed the cap-and-trade legislation once championed by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and former Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, but long stalled in Congress. Though the president said he would not hesitate to use executive orders to push his own measures to reduce carbon emissions, he did not give any details.
In another sign of the election’s lingering shadow, Mr. Obama was creating a bipartisan commission to investigate voting irregularities that led to long lines at polling sites in November. Studies indicate that these lines cost Democrats hundreds of thousands of votes. The commission will be led by the chief counsel of the Obama presidential campaign, Robert Bauer, and a legal adviser to Mitt Romney’s campaign, Ben Ginsberg.
On trade policy, the president said that the United States and the European Union were ready to begin negotiations on a comprehensive trade treaty. That came after a report submitted earlier in the day concluded that the gaps between the two sides were narrow enough to put a deal within reach.
Okay, fine, and he hit what were the big points, gun control of course, and this:
“It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country,” he said. “The idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.”
“It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few,” he continued. “That it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation of ours.”
The government can do good things, even for those who aren’t CEO’s and hedge fund managers. And there were theatrics too:
Desiline Victor, a 102-year-old Miami woman who waited for hours to vote in the last election, got a standing ovation from the nation’s top leaders during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night. Victor attended the State of the Union as a guest of first lady Michelle Obama.
“When she arrived at her polling place, she was told the wait to vote might be six hours,” the president said. “And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say. Hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line in support of her – because Desiline is 102 years old. And they erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read ‘I Voted.’”
Andrew Sullivan reacts to that:
The passion, the reason, the sincerity: this was an invigorated president, trying to shift the mood away from zero-sum partisanship to non-zero-sum citizenship. It’s what we always hoped from him, and I think it places the Republicans in a horrible bind. Are they going to prevent a vote on guns? Are they going to refuse Bowles-Simpson Medicare reform? Are they willing to force a sequester rather than cooperate with this popular president? Does the Speaker not appreciate a 102 year-old getting to vote? Why did he stay seated? I have a feeling that moment will strike people.
There were other reactions. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein offers this:
It’s often the case that candidates are more ambitious than presidents. But Obama’s second term is showing precisely the reverse progression. The speech went much further than Obama’s 2012 Democratic convention speech. There, his address was notable mainly for how modest the policy proposals were. Here, his speech was notable for the sweeping nature of the proposed changes. Obama’s agenda hasn’t been this bold since 2009.
R. M. at The Economist agrees with Klein:
The president’s speech felt like something out of the Roosevelt administration (Franklin), full as it was with progressive policy proposals – not exactly suited to our current paralytic times. So I’m going to propose that he has an eye on 2014. “Here are a bunch of proposals that you’ll probably like – universal pre-school, higher minimum wage, etc. – and that Republicans will never pass,” he seemed to be saying. “Do you want to reward such obstructionism?”
Yes, that’s a problem. Republicans are opposed to all Obama does, because it’s right to oppose it all, and they know Americans agree with them, even if all the polling show Americans don’t agree with them at all – only their base does. Obama has them in a bit of a bind there, although Will Wilkinson isn’t so sure:
Mr Obama will have gratified progressives by calling for action on climate change, and pleading emotionally for a vote on gun control measures, but there’s little reason to think he gained any ground on these divisive issues. It will be interesting to see how Republicans respond to Mr Obama’s proposal for universal preschool, as well as to see whether this new expense will actually survive as a priority for the president during negotiations over fiscal belt-tightening.
Still, Andrew Sprung saw total confidence here:
Obama’s repeated plea to the nation tonight was to face reality: his tone was relentless reasonability. He spoke with a distilled fluency of a man who has been articulating the same values and proposing essentially the same policies (excepting gun control) for six years on the national stage and now speaks with the knowledge that through several permutations and waves of oppositional hysteria he has still has (or has regained) a majority with him on the big stuff. And so he argued, not only as if he were himself convinced but convinced that we are convinced …
Ed Kilgore is on the same page:
I thought speech clever in how he handled challenge to GOP; very Clintonian in policy offerings (and better than past State of the Unions) and pretty good at taking advantage of areas where public opinion pretty much already on his side. Minimum wage increase good example: Republican pols and business leaders hate it, public loves it.
Raising the minimum wage might be the greatest thing since sliced bread and end the recession, or end America as we know it – alternative ends of history, so to speak. Or it may just help a little and not hurt all that much. There’s no point in getting all excited about it. Fukuyama could set them straight. It’s unwise to talk about what changes things forever.
Marco Rubio gave the Republican response:
Claiming Barack Obama thinks a “free enterprise economy” is “the cause of our problems” — not, as he sees it, the solution — Sen. Marco Rubio argued Tuesday that the president’s proposals would hurt middle class citizens more than help them.
“Mr. President, I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich,” the Florida Republican said in his rebuttal to Obama’s State of the Union address. “I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors.”
The 41-year-old lawmaker, viewed as a possible presidential candidate and declared by Time magazine as “The Republican Savior,” was tapped to give his party’s response to the speech.
The only problem was that he choked on his words – he kept to his prepared remarks, except when he suddenly stopped talking about halfway through to reach for a drink of water – but after glugging down the bottled water he went on. The online reaction was brutal – not that it mattered very much:
Speaking about gun control measures, one of the most emotional parts of Obama’s State of the Union speech, Rubio said he was for “effectively” dealing with such violence, then added, “but unconstitutionally undermining the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans is not the way to do it.”
He sharply criticized Obama on many fronts.
The president, Rubio claimed, had unfairly cast Republicans as opposing the environment and seniors, and only caring about rich people.
He contended that it was Obama who, if his plans are enacted, would hurt the majority of Americans by preventing the economy from growing.
“The tax increases and the deficit spending you propose will hurt middle class families,” Rubio said, referring to Obama. “It will cost them their raises. It will cost them their benefits. It may even cost some of them their jobs.” …
“More government isn’t going to help you get ahead. It’s going to hold you back.”
It’s a theory. So is evolution. And Andrew Rosenthal comments:
Mr. Rubio declared that he was particularly concerned about seniors who depend on Medicare, like his mother, and that “anyone who is in favor of leaving Medicare exactly the way it is right now, is in favor of bankrupting it.”
Funny Mr. Rubio should say that, because on Tuesday night, Mr. Obama argued that we can’t leave Medicare as is: “Those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare must embrace the need for modest reforms.”
Mr. Obama said he was “prepared to enact reforms that will achieve the same amount of health care savings by the beginning of the next decade as the reforms proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission.”
Mr. Rubio didn’t actually mention how he would fix Medicare. But we all know that he supported Paul Ryan’s plan to turn it into a voucher system.
The kid was up against a pro, and the kid was faking it:
In his rebuttal, Mr. Rubio also found time to remind voters that Republicans don’t like government or taxes. Here’s how he defined government’s role: “It plays a crucial part in keeping us safe, enforcing rules, and providing some security against the risks of modern life.” How inspiring! But “government isn’t going to help you get ahead. It’s going to hold you back.”
Okay, which is it?
In a break with tradition, Tea Party Republicans issued their official rebuttal to tonight’s State of the Union address a full twelve hours before President Obama was scheduled to deliver it.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) appeared on Fox News Channel at 9 A.M. (ET) to read the rebuttal, which some historians called the most brutal response ever to a Presidential speech that had not yet been made.
Calling Mr. Obama’s speech “full of the same empty promises and bald-faced lies we’ve come to expect,” Sen. Paul added that “tonight Barack Obama made his case: for his own impeachment.”
Laced with sarcasm and invective, Sen. Paul’s rebuttal eviscerated Mr. Obama’s not-yet-given speech, ending with a call for the President to be tried for treason and banished from the U.S.
Roger Ailes, President of Fox News Channel, defended the decision to air a blistering attack on a speech that Mr. Obama was not scheduled to give for another twelve hours: “Our viewers are very unlikely to sit through Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. Airing the rebuttal beforehand gives them a sense of what they would have thought was reprehensible about it.”
Yeah, it’s like that. It was all the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it stuff from the Republicans – the end of history or whatever. Obama suggested a different end of the world as we know it, where we get a better world. Anyone knows that’s nonsense. We get the same world, with different players over time. Even Francis Fukuyama had to admit that.
But it’s nearing midnight out here on the West Coast, only a few hours after the Obama speech and the Marco Rubio and Rand Paul responses. There will be many more reactions in the morning, and then everyone will move on. History doesn’t end. We will get no more than more of the same. It was only talk.