The Difficulties in Stating the Case

Blame Woodrow Wilson. Before his presidency that annual State of the Union thing wasn’t a formal speech delivered before a Joint Session of Congress – heck, it wasn’t even annual. It was more of an occasional internal memo, as required by Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution. It was a specific enumerated task. The president “shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

Congress writes the laws and the president administers them, so the idea was that now and then he really ought to tell Congress how it’s going, and make whatever suggestions that occur to him to make things work a bit better. Before Woodrow Wilson this was a written report, not directed at the general public and not discussed much in the press. It was just a housekeeping task, a bit of a chore – but before Wilson there was no such thing as radio, with its national audience. When radio came along, things changed. A formal speech delivered before a Joint Session of Congress, broadcast to the nation, was a chance to set an agenda, and chance to for the president to tell the nation he was asking Congress to advance that wonderful agenda, or daring them, at their peril, to oppose it. The occasional internal memo had become a policy manifesto, a statement of what we really ought to be doing as a nation, often quite specific, and often resented by Congress for obvious reasons. One man’s challenge is another man’s cudgel, and it only got worse when television came along.

Kennedy was fine – he suggested landing a man on the moon and returning him safely (a key detail) by the end of the decade. Who could argue with that? The Soviets had been the first to put a satellite in orbit and the first to put a man in space, so we had to show them a thing or two, and we did. But Lyndon Johnson called for a War on Poverty and a Great Society, and he challenged Congress to pass all that civil rights stuff too. The Republicans weren’t happy with any of it. They had hated FDR and his New Deal and all the rest, and this was more of the same, laid out as the right thing to do, right there on national television, in prime time, preempting the sitcoms and game shows. It just wasn’t fair, and Johnson got his Medicare and Medicaid and Head Start and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and all the rest. A casual internal memo would not have accomplished that.

No one remembers Bill Clinton’s State of the Union addresses, probably because they were so extraordinarily long and wonky. Somewhere in there he did declare that the era of big government was over, but no one believed a word of it. Welfare changed – people now had to work, or look for work, or enroll in some sort of job training, to get any benefits at all. The first wave of financial deregulation also started under Clinton, with the repeal the Glass–Steagall Act of 1933, which he had said was a wonderful idea, but others later took deregulation of the financial services industry much further than that, to our ruin – and under Clinton government was about as big as it had ever been.

George Bush, the second one, told us about the Axis of Evil, which was a catchy way to frame things but turned out to be a woefully simplistic way to deal with the mess the world was at the time, and still is. His father had told us to read his lips – NO NEW TAXES! Yeah, sure – both the father and son weren’t very good at this sort of thing.

Obama, of course, had used the State of the Union to urge Congress to pass that cobbled-together Affordable Care Act mess that satisfied no one but at least was a stab at something vaguely like the universal healthcare systems that every other industrialized nation on earth has had in place forever, except that ours would be market-based, with only private for-profit providers. It wouldn’t be a single-payer system like Medicare. There’d be no public option. That passed, barely – except that when Obama used the State of the Union to say, once again, that none of this applied to illegal immigrants, a Republican congressman from North Carolina, Joe Wilson, shouted out “You LIE!” The State of the Union has become one of any president’s most effective tools to get done what he thinks should be done, but two can play at the game. Wilson got his primetime moment too.

Now it’s that time again, and word has been leaking out on what Obama will say this time:

When he stands before lawmakers Tuesday night for his State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama will have a message for the divided Congress that has largely stymied his agenda for the past three years: Fine, I’ll go it alone.

“I’ve got a pen,” Obama has said in the weeks leading up to the speech, “and I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions that move the ball forward.”

There’s the Democratic-controlled Senate trying to advance his agenda – they even passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill last year, mainly authored by the Tea Party senator Marco Rubio, of all people – and the Republican-led House where everything goes to die. So screw it:

Obama has pledged to act, saying, “We are not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help that they need.”

“The president sees this as a year of action, to work with Congress where he can and to bypass Congress where necessary,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told ABC News Sunday.

That’s the preview, and thus there will be talk of an Imperial Presidency and how this man is a tyrant, as if Ronald Reagan or either of those Bush fellows never signed an executive order or made a recess appointment. And as for Congress these days doing nothing at all, John Boehner is already on record saying that’s how things should be – Congress should not be judged on how many laws it passes, but on how many laws it repeals. This particular Congress has done neither, which is, presumably, even better. All you need to do is follow the logic. If you believe that government should do as little as possible, in the name of true freedom for everyone, and you are convinced that all of the American people except the Takers – that pesky forty-seven percent – hate government too and want it gone, then Obama will be digging his own grave here, saying he’ll get useful things done any way he can.

Republicans think they are on solid ground here. Nothing the government does is useful, right? Ronald Reagan said so, and now everyone knows that. That’s the Republicans’ bet. Obama will be making the opposite bet – and he also knows that the angry Republican base of old white dudes relies on Social Security and Medicare, and drives on government roads and walks on government sidewalks, so Obama wants them to remember that. They might. On the other hand, many of them have also repeatedly watched that conservative wet-dream of a movie Red Dawn – where a half-dozen Colorado kids with handguns and hunting rifles defeat the massed forces of the Soviets and the black-helicopter UN folks to save America – so it’s obvious that we don’t even need the Pentagon and the Army and all that crap. This could get interesting.

Politico looks at it from the other side:

For progressives, Tuesday’s State of the Union isn’t so much about what President Barack Obama says, but how forcefully and expansively he says it.

They’re looking less for a specific wish list – though they have one of those, too – than for Obama to deliver a robust response to what he has repeatedly called “the defining issue of our time.”

In a tone-setting speech in December, Obama embraced an increase in the minimum wage and spoke of his commitment to broad principles. Now he’ll have to balance how much further to take that to energize his base against the damage he could do to red-state Democrats – particularly in Senate races where the party’s on defense – by seeming to swing too far.

The man did say that income inequality was the defining issue of our time, and progressives wonder if will stick with that, or fold once again, and all they can do is hope:

Progressives believe the timing, the economics and the political mood are aligned: Next week, Obama will be speaking to a country that, fifty years after the State of the Union in which President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the War on Poverty, has even more people living in poverty. Long-term unemployment and the stock market both continue to hit records. And fewer and fewer people feel like they’re members of the middle class.

“There’s a sea change. We think that this is the moment for him to frame a much bigger debate,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union. “He has a gift of imagining a brighter future, but in this moment, it has to be a forceful argument against the other baloney that people are being fed.”

Well, they can stop hoping:

Income inequality is out – “ladders of opportunity” is in.

Eager to dispel claims that President Barack Obama is engaging in “class warfare” as he heads into his State of the Union address next week, the White House is de-emphasizing phrases focusing on economic disparity and turning instead to messages about creating paths of opportunity for the poor and middle class.

The adjustment reflects an awareness that Obama’s earlier language put him at risk of being perceived as divisive and exposed him to criticism that his rhetoric was exploiting the gap between haves and have-nots.

At the Washington Monthly, Martin Longman explodes:

The White House can choose to emphasize whatever they want, but the idea that the president should seek to avoid being seen as divisive because he’s engaging in “class warfare” is a bad joke. That’s fighting on the Republicans’ turf using the language of Frank Luntz. When the day comes that the president calls for rich people’s heads on pikes, then he’ll be divisive. Until that time, he’s merely pointing out that the wealth disparity in this country has grown to an historic level, and something ought to be done about it.

Obama was divisive once, in 2009:

“I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street,” Mr Obama said. “They’re still puzzled why it is that people are mad at the banks. Well, let’s see. You guys are drawing down 10, 20 million dollar bonuses after America went through the worst economic year in decades and you guys caused the problem.”

The interview was run ahead of a meeting with executives from 12 banks, scheduled for today. Mr Obama is to meet representatives of banks including Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Capital One and American Express.

Mr Obama will have a “serious talk” with the industry representatives, according to White House economic adviser Larry Summers.

Speaking on ABC’s “The Week” program yesterday, Mr Summers said: “We were there for them and the banks need to do everything they can to be sure they’re there for customers across this country.”

Maybe Obama knows better now:

“What you want to do is focus on the aspirational side of this, lifting people up, not on just complaining about a lack of fairness or inequality,” said Paul Begala, a former top adviser to President Bill Clinton who consults with White House officials. “Watch the State of the Union. I’d be surprised if he uses phrases like inequality, which suggests a leveling down. If you talk about the middle class, it suggests a lifting up.”

Obama’s December speech was well received by Democrats and liberals, but conservatives jumped on it, arguing that Obama was laying a foundation for economic redistribution.

“I think the administration is playing with dynamite,” Karl Rove, the former adviser to President George W. Bush, said earlier this month on Fox News. “The more this becomes a question of taking from those who have to those that don’t have, the more they engage the American people in a very negative way for the administration.”

Karl Rove and Frank Luntz win this round:

A new poll by the Pew Research Center and USA Today illustrates Obama’s message challenge. The poll found that nearly two out of three surveyed believe that the gap between the rich and everyone else has grown in the last 10 years, a view held by majorities across political party lines. But the poll found that Democrats and Republicans disagreed sharply on whether the government should intervene to close the gap. Among Democrats 90 percent said government should act whereas only 45 percent of Republicans said the same thing.

Democrats and Republicans disagree, so the only thing to do is to back away from the position favored by his supporters, but it’s not an odd choice:

“Anytime a Democrat mentions inequality, suddenly they’re a raging populist,” said Jon Favreau, Obama’s top speech writer until he left the White House a year ago. “What’s he’s talking about he’s been talking about since 2004, 2005.”

“Any capitalist country has inequality and that in itself is not necessarily a bad thing,” Favreau said. “What most concerned him is mobility.”

These things get tricky, and economic mobility may be the issue. Matthew O’Brien, writing in the Atlantic, pretty much explains it all:

Here’s what we know. The rich are getting richer, but according to a blockbuster new study, that hasn’t made it harder for the poor to become rich. The good news is that people at the bottom are just as likely to move up the income ladder today as they were 50 years ago. But the bad news is that people at the bottom are just as likely to move up the income ladder today as they were 50 years ago.

We like to tell ourselves that America is the land of opportunity, but the reality doesn’t match the rhetoric – and hasn’t for a while. We actually have less social mobility than countries like Denmark. And that’s more of a problem the more inequality there is. Think about it like this: Moving up matters more when there’s a bigger gap between the rich and poor. So even though mobility hasn’t gotten worse lately, it has worse consequences today because inequality is worse.

The item goes on to explain how mobility in America is lumpy – those with parents at the bottom are far less likely to move up in the world in the South and other red states, where, on principle, government is being dismantled and schools and infrastructure abandoned, in the name of freedom, but mobility sucks everywhere, really – except in Denmark and such places. Obama’s choice to reframe the issue isn’t that irrational, and there’s no point in offending the rich folks, as one can see in this item in the Wall Street Journal letters section:

Writing from the epicenter of progressive thought, San Francisco, I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its “one percent,” namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the “rich.”

From the Occupy movement to the demonization of the rich embedded in virtually every word of our local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent. There is outraged public reaction to the Google buses carrying technology workers from the city to the peninsula high-tech companies which employ them. We have outrage over the rising real-estate prices which these “techno geeks” can pay. We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in the Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel, alleging that she is a “snob” despite the millions she has spent on our city’s homeless and mentally ill over the past decades.

This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendent “progressive” radicalism unthinkable now?

Tom Perkins
San Francisco

Mr. Perkins is a founder of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers

Perkins is one of the world’s wealthiest and most successful Silicon Valley venture capitalists, and Josh Marshall has a few things to say about this:

Just so we’re all on the same page, Kristallnacht (“the night of shattered glass”) was essentially the opening act of Hitler’s Final Solution. It took place on November 9th and 10th, 1938. This claim manages simultaneously to be so logically ridiculous and morally hideous that Perkins deserves every bit of abuse he’s already receiving.

But I think we’re missing the point if we see this as the gaffe of one aging, coddled jerk. Because it’s only a more extreme and preposterous version of beliefs that have become increasingly widespread in the wealthiest sectors of American society, especially since 2008 and the twin events of the global financial crisis and the election of Barack Obama.

Let me state the phenomenon as clearly as possible: The extremely wealthy are objectively far wealthier, far more politically powerful and find a far more indulgent political class than at any time in almost a century – at least. And yet at the same time they palpably feel more isolated, abused and powerless than at any time over the same period and sense some genuine peril to the whole mix of privileges, power and wealth they hold.

Their sense of peril may seem absurd, but Marshall says it’s quite real:

I first started noticing this when I saw several years ago that many of the wealthiest people in the country, especially people in financial services, not only didn’t support Obama (not terribly surprising) but had a real and palpable sense that he was out to get them. This was hard to reconcile with the fact that Obama, along with President Bush, had pushed through a series of very unpopular laws and programs and fixes that had not only stabilized global capitalism, saved Wall Street but saved the personal fortunes (and perhaps even the personal liberty) of the people who were turning so acidly against him. Indeed, through the critical years of 2009, 10 and 11 he was serving as what amounted to Wall Street’s personal heat shield, absorbing as political damage the public revulsion at the bailout policies that had kept Wall Street whole.

Apparently that does matter, for what Marshall sees as three reasons:

One is the simple but massive run up in the concentration of wealth itself over the past two generations. There’s a slice of the population, whether it’s the top 1% or .01% or whatever, that doesn’t just have more stuff and money. The sheer scale of the difference means they live what is simply a qualitatively different kind of existence. That gulf creates estrangement and alienation, and one of a particular sort in a democracy where such a minuscule sliver of the population can’t hope to protect itself alone at the ballot box. Let’s call this socioeconomic acrophobia.

A second is tied specifically to the 2008 financial crisis. The last 35 years or so have seen a period in which the celebration of wealth and the wealthy has been near the extreme end of the pendulum swing that has moved back and forth over the course of American history. Let’s not distract ourselves, for the moment, with whether this view is right or wrong. It’s a pendulum swing as old as America. In this view, the super-rich, the founders and most successful entrepreneurs, not only wow us by their genius and success but are also seen as the people driving forward the society and economy and prosperity for everyone. That’s a nice climate to be wealthy in.

But then that all went sour:

That all changed very abruptly at the end of 2008.

Suddenly, there was vast public animus at “Wall Street” and the Big Banks, exacerbated massively by the politics of the bailout – and not just from the left but from the right too, though in a different form. Pretty deserved on many levels: the financial sector, the figurative “Wall Street”, had come close to crashing the global economic system by a mix of irresponsible risk taking and gaming the political system to permit this high-risk, wealth-juicing leverage. But if we’re to understand the psychology of the individuals involved we must appreciate the whipsaw nature of that experience.

Quite simply, these were and are folks who just weren’t used to public criticism. The whole “masters of the universe” mythology was basically, sure we’re massively wealthy. But we’re also the ones keeping the globe we all live on from spinning off its axis. So let us enjoy our Hamptons estates and our private jets in peace and we’ll do our jobs and you do yours. The crossfire hurricane that ripped apart that social contract stung a lot.

Then add this:

We know now that Wall Street came out of the financial crisis pretty nicely. But that was far from clear in the fall of 2008. The titans, under-titans and sub-titans saw the entire financial system spin on the edge of un-self-regulating collapse, something the reigning ideology of recent decades said shouldn’t have been possible along with the real prospect of whole personal fortunes evaporating in an instant. That kind of scare is not easy to forget. Mix it with the need to run to the political class hat in hand and that ocean of animus from the public at large and you get the makings of a political and psychological toxicity that breeds nonsense at the extreme end and more pervasively the sense of embattlement and threat verging on persecution complex that I described above.

It is that mix of insecurity, a sense of the brittleness of one’s hold on wealth, power, and privileges – combined with the reality of great wealth and power – that breeds a mix of aggressiveness and perceived embattlement.

Then there’s Obama himself:

By various criteria you could argue that before Obama America hadn’t had a progressive president in decades. Popular perceptions aside, Carter was actually part of the privatizing trend of the late 70s. And Clinton, while genuinely a progressive in many ways, served most of his presidency during a period when basically everyone was either getting rich or making at least some progress. And when everybody is getting at least some taste of the good times, then these sorts of antagonisms find a way of getting overlooked or passed over. President Obama is far from being a Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman. But he is a progressive and sees the economy and the larger society’s claims on the very wealthy differently than a Bush or a Reagan. And again, that was just not something any of these folks had experienced before.

That’s why Obama has to be careful:

The disconnect between perception and reality, among such a powerful segment of the population, is in itself dangerous. And it’s led to what I would call a significant radicalization of the politics of extreme wealth.

Yes, and they lavishly finance key Senate and House campaigns, and get their governors and mayors and school board members elected all across the country, all in hope of staving off the day when Obama will round them all up and send them to the gas chamber. The fear is irrational, to say the least, but it’s quite real. And somehow they managed to get the crowd that watches Red Dawn every week or so on their side too.

Obama needs to be very careful here. Maybe he is right to back off those two words, income inequality. Maybe he also shouldn’t mention his pen and just sign executive orders as necessary, explaining things after the fact, if anyone asks. In fact, maybe he should just submit a written report, like in the days before Woodrow Wilson – but those days are over, and now the State of the Union really is a useful tool. It’s just become hard to use.

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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2 Responses to The Difficulties in Stating the Case

  1. I’ve been having some thoughts about how we solve this income inequality problem – feel free to let me know what you think. It’s on Politicoid

  2. Rick says:

    Although I am a little uncomfortable, like most liberals, with Obama backing off from “income equality” lately — and talking instead about “ladders of opportunity” sounds too much like what some pundits might call using “weasel words” — I also think it makes good sense.

    After all, one problem with the word “inequality” is that railing against it sounds, to anyone just joining the discussion, like arguing in favor of “equality” — that is, that everyone in the country should have equal income and equal wealth, as if nobody has the right to become rich, and that maybe we need to “equal” things out by engaging in “class warfare” — in the words of conservatives, “taking from Peter to pay Paul”.

    The truth is, of course — and conservatives don’t see this, or at least are loathe to admit it — there has been, in this country, a great deal of “taking from Paul to pay Peter” going on — that is, the rich have been getting richer at the expense of everyone else in the country, which is why our economy is so out-of-balance.

    How can we, the 90% Democrats in that poll mentioned, make our point to the majority Republicans in the poll (and to that “Kristallnacht” guy in San Francisco, apparently worried that he and his peeps might get sent to concentration camps) who don’t want America, through its government, to try to solve its problems?

    I’m thinking maybe we should put to them the question as to whether they’d rather live in …

    [a] Some banana-republic somewhere, in which a very few, extremely rich people live in gated communities, surrounded by twelve-foot walls meant to protect them from everyone else, almost all of whom are dirt poor, or …

    [b] Right here in the United States?

    (And no, there is no “[c] All of the above.”)

    If they answer “[a]”, then we can suggest that they please find such a place and move there, leaving this country to those of us who do want to prevent it from becoming just another banana republic.

    When Josh Marshall talks about Wall Streeters acting in “a mix of aggressiveness and perceived embattlement”, I’m immediately reminded of my 15-year-old daughter last week, stomping her foot and proclaiming that she doesn’t think her mother and I have the right to “run her life”, insisting everything would be so much better without all these rules and regulations about dating strange boys she meets on social-media sites, and questioning whether its really necessary to “prohibit” her from getting various body piercings and tattoos.

    Ah, well, at least in her case, I can find comfort in the knowledge that, in just a few years, she will be an adult, presumably old enough to “self-regulate” herself and hopefully make the right decisions for herself.

    If only politics worked that way.


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