The State of Something or Other

This is a place marker – or maybe what follows is all that needs to be said. An hour or two ago, or in a universe far away and long ago, President Obama gave his State of the Union address, and the Republicans’ budget wonk, Paul Ryan, gave the Republican response, and the Tea Party Express folks had Michele Bachmann give the Tea Party response. Obama was clear and forceful and eloquent and reasonable and gracious – as usual. Ryan was stiff and uncomfortable – he was clear enough but had the charisma of a meek CPA shoved on stage, which may have been the case. Bachmann had those wide wild eyes and the intensity of someone who’d just finished off her third pot of hot black coffee in the last half-hour. She was wired. In short, it was what everyone expected.

Of course, if you watched all this, the onscreen opening crawl was amusing:

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy….

Oops. No, you were watching the wrong channel, although Michele Bachmann was doing a pretty good Princess Leia. That seems to be how she sees herself.

On the other hand, Josh Marshall saw this:

I was just watching CNN’s pre-game show. And the anchor was practically flabbergasted reading the results of their own poll which showed that people overwhelmingly think protecting Social Security is a bigger priority than the deficit. Like by 3 to 1. Shocking. Shocking. Only not shocking at all if you follow public opinion data as opposed to Sunday morning TV.

Yes, the pundits have agreed. That nation is worried sick about the deficit, and the nation wants to abolish Social Security entirely, to help balance the books, because everyone knows that’s the source of all our problems – and all the old people can eat cat food anyway.

It’s just that the pundits made that up, because it ought to be true. And then they decided it was true, because it ought to be true. And so they reported it as true. Well, that happens. And now they can report on the shocking new poll results. What everyone knew was true isn’t true at all! Stay tuned! Film at eleven! Yes, the news is a funny business.

But that Obama speech was pretty straightforward:

In his first address to a divided Congress, President Obama implored both parties to work together to confront the nation’s challenges and outlined a broad strategy for keeping America competitive and stimulating economic growth.

The president spoke in front of an emboldened Republican Party and new House Republican majority that is deeply skeptical of his proposals for ways to boost the economy, create jobs and cut spending.

With that new reality on Capitol Hill, Obama emphasized bipartisanship and ways he and his fellow Democrats could work with Republicans, including a ban on earmarks and a spending freeze on parts of the budget that he said would save approximately $400 billion over five years.

That’s from ABC News, and it continues with specifics and anecdotes and reaction-quotes, with a video of the speech attached. It was the usual Obama message, delivered masterfully. The full text of the speech is here – but Brendan Nyhan in this item points out that the Stare of the Union is the “most over-covered event in politics relative to the amount of the news that’s made.”

And that seems about right, given how he assesses the spin:

Instant polls of people who watch the speech are meaningless (it’s a non-random sample skewed toward the president’s supporters, among other problems).

The claim that presidents get a bounce from the speech is a widely debunked myth (most don’t).

And as for the seating arrangements, with, for the first time, Republicans seated with Democrats, Nyhan says what is obvious:

Legislative seating may matter over the long term, but not for one night.

And there was Jonathan Chait:

The substance of Obama’s speech was moderate liberalism – we like business, but government has a role too, neither too much nor too little, etc. It’s hard to attach that kind of case-by-case pragmatism to an overarching theme. But I do think Obama pulled it off pretty well. He took a fairly hackneyed idea – the future – and managed to weave it into issue after issue, from infrastructure to energy to deficits to education and even foreign policy.

Yep, that was it. Future good – past, useless and unimportant now – and those others guys want to stay put, or go back. We don’t. Case closed.

And see Alex Pareene:

Oh god he’s doing Reagan. The government is so big and complicated. I have a folksy anecdote about fish that illustrates the absurdity of the entire enterprise of managing a massive, wealthy, post-industrial nation. (Obama is also bad at delivering “jokes,” his apparently developed sense of irony notwithstanding.) Oh, now we’re done with “wasteful government spending” and on to our on-going fight against al Qaeda abroad. We’re going to kill all the terrorists. All of them! Also we’re going to leave Afghanistan. Or begin to leave. Begin to start to leave.

And there’s Paul Krugman:

Considering the rumors a few weeks ago, which suggested a cave on Social Security, this wasn’t too bad. Obama said that we’re going to do something about Social Security, but unclear what. And in general he at least somewhat stood his ground against the right. In fact, the best thing about the speech was exactly what most of the commentariat is going to condemn: Obama did not surrender to the fiscal austerity now-now-now types.

And as for Obama’s suggesting this was our Sputnik Moment – time to get serious and jump start education and basic research, the Economist’s “Democracy in America” fellow says this:

I cannot think of a worse model for future growth than the bygone space-race which was little more than hugely wasteful technological peacocking by cold-war superpowers.

And see Matthew Yglesias:

I thought it was a good speech; an example of trying to govern from the White House. I would say that zero percent of the speech was dedicated to building support in congress for concrete pieces of legislation that the President hopes to sign into law. And it’s too bad that the president’s not in a position to promise to shepherd big bills through congress. But the reality is that he’s not. So he’s wisely floating above the fray, issuing “sounds good but hard to do in practice” calls for smart infrastructure investments, tax reform, less oil subsidies, etc.

Most likely none of it will happen. But it will definitely sound good, and if the president’s lucky some of it will happen!

But that does make this the most over-covered event in politics relative to the amount of the news that’s made.

As for the official response, see Remarks of Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) As Prepared for Delivery – the message was stop spending, shut things down as much as possible, the government exists for national defense and nothing more. And the deficit will kill us all. Austerity is prosperity.

This was what everyone expected, although Ryan did say the guys on his side are not mean people – social safety nets are good and necessary things. He didn’t mention that his grand plan calls for ending Medicare entirely, and phasing out all of Social Security. He was careful.

And from CNN see this – Transcript: Bachmann’s Response to the State of the Union – and from Greg Sargent see this:

Here’s an interesting twist on Michele Bachmann’s plan to offer her own Tea Party-flavored response to Obama’s State of the Union speech: It turns out GOP aides are annoyed with CNN for agreeing to air her speech in its entirety.

Originally, Bachmann’s response was going to be available for viewing only on the Internet. But CNN has announced that her speech will be shown in full in addition to broadcasting the speech from GOP Rep. Paul Ryan, who was picked for the official response by the Republican leadership.

GOP aides are unhappy with the decision, because it risks making the opposition look conflicted – as if the two are trying to upstage one another – muddling GOP efforts to offer a unified response.

“CNN is basically inventing a conflict that doesn’t really exist,” a GOP aide emails. “It’s not responsible journalism.”

Ah, if those folks at CNN were responsible journalists they’d give her no airtime.

But they did, and Eric Lach saw this:

In her Tea Party response after the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address tonight, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) offered a critique of the President and his policies, and said she believes “we are in the very early days of a history-making turn.”

She also threw in a debunked myth about the health care law for good measure.

With the aid of a chart, Bachmann denounced what she called an “unprecedented explosion of government spending and debt, unlike anything we have seen in the history of our country.” She said the stimulus had “failed,” and called on Obama to repeal “ObamaCare.” She also blamed Obama for the nation’s 9.4 percent unemployment rate.

“Instead of a leaner, smarter government, we bought a bureaucracy that now tells us which light bulbs to buy, and which may put 16,500 IRS agents in charge of policing President Obama’s healthcare bill,” she said. The IRS agent claim has been widely debunked, and factcheck.org says it “stems from a partisan analysis based on guesswork and false assumptions, and compounded by outright misrepresentation.”

But she did say she had the plans to the Death Star, and she and her brother, Luke, were going to see that it got blown up:

In her closing, she made reference to the famous picture – Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. “These six young men raising the flag came to symbolize all of America coming together to beat back a totalitarian aggressor,” she said. “Our current debt crisis we face today is different, but we still need all of us to pull together. But we can do this.”

And Chewbacca bellowed in agreement. But see Andy Birkey reporting in the Minnesota Independent – Tea Party to Bachmann: You Don’t Speak for the Tea Party – as some do not think she’s Princess Leia at all. But maybe Glenn Beck is Yoda.

It was quite a night – not that important, but quite a night.

On the other hand, the New York Times’ David Sanger argues that all this really was important. Everyone put their cards on the table. All this was setting the stage for ultimate clash of ideals over government:

At a moment when the momentum in Washington is driving toward slashing budgets and shrinking government, President Obama argued on Tuesday evening that the politics of austerity, mindlessly applied, would amount to a pre-emptive surrender to China, India and a raft of smaller competitors who are investing while Americans are cutting.

It is a theme Mr. Obama has struck repeatedly since the Democrats’ devastating losses in the midterm elections exactly 12 weeks ago. He warned soon after that America must “step up our game,” and on Tuesday night he told Congress and the nation that this is “our generation’s Sputnik moment.”

With those words, Mr. Obama was defining the ideological battle of the coming year: strikingly different views of the role of government, even as both sides agree that cuts will be necessary.

That’s as basic as it gets, and you see the fighters in their respective corners, waiting for the bell:

To the new Republican majority in the House, the path to restoring American “competitiveness” – the word itself is something of a Rorschach test – includes slashing taxes and getting the government out of the way. To Mr. Obama, even a leaner federal government must play a central role in guiding the country’s economic future, helping the United States to confront the rising economic powers that ate away at America’s lead while the country was distracted in the post-Sept. 11 decade.

“South Korean homes now have greater Internet access than we do,” Mr. Obama said, ticking off the list of how America had fallen behind. “Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports.” He noted at another point that the world’s biggest private solar research facility and fastest supercomputer were now in China.

Yeah, but we read the Bible more, or something.

But Sanger adds this context:

Mr. Obama is hardly the first president to try to rekindle the spirit of cold-war competition in an effort to force Americans to set aside political differences and join together to face a common threat to their prosperity and security.

“Americans are prone to cycles of belief in their own decline,” Joseph Nye wrote in his newest exploration of America’s status in the world, “The Future of Power.”

Mr. Obama was clearly seeking to pull America out of its latest funk, arguing that no country has a deeper bench, better universities or a more entrepreneurial spirit. But he also portrayed those as fragile assets, and his bet is that Americans expect their government to preserve the country’s lead, a view that puts him in direct competition with Tea Party-fueled calls for a diminished Washington.

That’s about it – we’re in a funk – things are bad – and one side says look, this is what a government of the people is for – we can agree to get our ass in gear and get moving again. And other side says sure, we should get moving again – but the last thing you want is the government involved in that. You want the people involved in that, not the government. And Obama can say, all he wants, that the government is the people – and that this is how representative democracy works, but the other side will scream about freedom – the Founding Fathers didn’t want a government of the people, if they were the wrong people with the wrong ideas. People should be free of their oppressive government, the one they themselves foolishly elected.

Yes, that doesn’t make sense. But now it’s all out there.

And Sanger points out how this plays out operationally:

In his speech, Mr. Obama tried once again to differentiate between his short-term tactics to get the country working again – which led him to agree to extending tax cuts, including many he believes to be unwise – and a long-term strategy of selective investment and deficit reduction.

“Let’s make sure that what we’re cutting is really excess weight,” Mr. Obama said, in what may be the line in his hour-long speech that was most directed at the Tea Party caucus. “Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may feel like you’re flying high at first, but it won’t take long before you’ll feel the impact.”

But those are the details. Long-term investments in innovation – funding basic research – and in education – a good public school system for everyone – are symbolic. Obama maintained that the private sector can’t make immediate money at those two things, and the government should fund them, for the good of the nation. The other side doesn’t see it that way. Those are symbols of the government spending money foolishly. Let people do what they want.

And there’s the problem:

Now his challenge is to win the argument against those who say that when government intervenes in the economy, it is usually for the worse. While directly hailing the wonders of free enterprise – an effort to beat back his opponents’ charge that he is a socialist in capitalist clothing – he made the case that at moments, government intervention has been inspired.

“Because it’s not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout history our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need,” he said. “That’s what planted the seeds for the Internet. That’s what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS.”

But you can see the problem. The internet and GPS were originally Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency projects:

DARPA’s original mission, established in 1958, was to prevent technological surprise like the launch of Sputnik, which signaled that the Soviets had beaten the U.S. into space. The mission statement has evolved over time. Today, DARPA’s mission is still to prevent technological surprise to the US, but also to create technological surprise for its enemies.

But Google and Facebook and online poker and match.com were not DARPA projects. Maybe private enterprise would have invented the basic concept and worked out the details, so we could have Facebook – or maybe not. No one knows. And things, according to Sanger, are just complicated now:

What Mr. Obama stepped around is the reality of American competition today – that innovation, education and infrastructure are necessary ingredients for global competitive success, but no guarantee. Many of the technologies on which Mr. Obama is depending are the product of joint ventures that combine American ideas, European design and Asian manufacturing. That is something few in this Congress may want to hear, much less finance, given that many of the jobs those innovations create do not go to Americans.

But at least things are clear now. This is our government – the government is us – and we can fix things. Or the government is not us, it’s our enemy and a burden, and, as a tool, it should be dismissed, and then dismantled. Take your choice.

Those two views are incompatible. And that’s the state of the union.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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