The State of the Union from 50,000 millimeters

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Feb 10, 2012

The last The Weekender column critiqued Gov. Cuomo’s State of the State address and criticized its centerpiece proposal for building the nation’s largest convention center on the site of the Aqueduct Racetrack in Ozone Park, Queens. Equal time should be accorded Pres. Obama’s State of the Union address. It was delivered Jan. 24 to Congress, leaders in the executive and judicial branches and as is becoming an annoying custom to a gaggle of guests singled out for praise and photo op while the president delivered the speech.

Overall, The Weekender gives the president a B+ for the address. I am of an age when that grade would make a student and his/her parents happy. And happy the president should be, not merely because the speech was generally very good and well received, but was preceded and followed with very good news about the improving economy and job outlook and therefore his re-election prospects. In truth, the speech was as much the kickoff for Obama’s campaign as it was fulfillment of the constitutional command that the president “from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union…”

When the president referred to the astounding recovery of the U.S. auto industry, it was a pointed reminder that Mitt Romney, his likely November opponent, stated that he would have let G.M. and Chrysler go under. And when the president said that his administration had instituted more than double the trade cases against China as had his predecessor, perhaps he had received a tip that just one week later the World Trade Organization would issue a major decision finding that China violated global trade rules in the way it employed export duties and quotas on “rare earths” that are essential in the production of high tech products.

So, it was a campaign speech and that always happens when the incumbent is standing for re-election. We can hope that it will not always be that way and that one election year the president will explicitly or implicitly say: “I’ll make a campaign speech tomorrow, tonight let’s really talk about the State of our Union.”

The speech contained lots of laundry list specificity. For this annual address with nearly the entire government assembled in one room and the whole world watching, I would prefer a speech delivered from a vantage point in outer space looking down on the entire United States or at least one from 50,000 feet. Not this one, which paid lip service to the lofty “vision thing,” but was heavy on programmatic detail in the areas of taxes, immigration, energy, mining, the environment, infrastructure, veterans benefits, primary and secondary education and foreign policy. In fairness, the last of these really required and deserved the degree of specificity the president provided, as he chronicled many momentous events and accomplishments in world and military affairs. References to the killing of Bin Laden, the winding down of our military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, our measured and collaborative involvement in response to Arab Spring uprisings, the reassertion of our status as a Pacific power and counterforce to the emergence of a militarized China, elevated the speech from the programmatic specificity, which at other times seemed more appropriate for the annual report of a town supervisor.

That degree of specificity emerged most annoyingly in the constant parade of invited heroes whose faces were captured by the television camera as the president mentioned them. We got to see Jackie Bray, a single mom retrained in a community college to work for a new Siemens gas turbine factory in North Carolina, and Bryan Ritterby, a middle-aged man who also retooled to work with turbines, this time wind powered machines in Michigan. The heroes always come from such battle-ground states, including Wisconsin, where praise was heaped on the unnamed president of Milwaukee-based Master Lock for repatriating jobs. Also unnamed but spotlighted were the attractive widow of Steve Jobs and the equally attractive New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who the president selected to co-captain a “special unit” that will investigate and punish the worst predatory lenders and mortgage bundlers who contributed so mightily to the 2008 financial collapse.

Richard Cordray, another hero, was both named and introduced to America as the director of the United States Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the consumer watchdog established by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Cordray is a highly controversial “recess appointment” by the president. While the Senate was, in fact, on recess when Obama made the appointment, Senate Republicans pretended the upper house was open for business by holding so-called pro-forma sessions.

Dodd-Frank and the bureau Cordray heads were the major mechanisms designed to prevent the types of abuses which led to the 2008 debacle. The spotlighting of this hero, more than any other, revealed the true nature and overall theme of the president’s speech. This was a very blunt statement to Congress and the American public that the president would like the cooperation of Congress in governing, but given the Republican/Tea Party boycott of his bills in the House and filibuster of his appointments in the Senate, he is ready, willing and able to govern without and run against a do nothing Congress in November. The president repeatedly sounded this message throughout his speech.

As a strategy for governing, the president has little choice given the reality that Mitch McConnell in the Senate and Eric Cantor, the real Republican leader in the House, declared at the outset of Obama’s presidency that above all else their goal was to deny him re-election. Whether running against Congress is a winning campaign strategy for Obama, is too early to tell, but given the steady improvements in the economy, the winding down of our wars and the restored respect for American leadership around the world, it and Obama are beginning to look like winners.

Next year perhaps, the person elected president this November will go back up into space and deliver a grand vision of America’s future from that lofty perspective. One thing I can guarantee, it won’t be Newt Gingrich from his colony on the moon.



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