The State of the Union

d7_blog_sotu_logoAs a right-leaning political junkie, I watched last night’s State of the Union waiting for the President to say something that would bother me. An hour or so later, that moment had never arrived. I knew that last night’s speech would be different, both because of the buzz coming from the White House and also because I believe that most presidents have a firm grasp on the historical context they live in. This president may understand that better than most.

The speech was masterfully written. As others have already pointed out, it echoed FDR’s Four Freedoms speech from the 1941 State of the Union. President Obama chose to do this by asking four questions and then answering them in turn. We can certainly critique some of the achievements he highlighted, but what struck me was that in each case his answers contained words that I felt to be universally true. Keeping that in mind, I present below President Obama’s four questions and the Four Truths he answered with.

1. First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?

Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction. What is true and the reason that a lot of Americans feel anxious is that the economy has been changing in profound ways, changes that started long before the Great Recession hit and haven’t let up. Today, technology doesn’t just replace jobs on the assembly line, but any job where work can be automated. Companies in a global economy can locate anywhere, and face tougher competition. As a result, workers have less leverage for a raise. Companies have less loyalty to their communities. And more and more wealth and income is concentrated at the very top.

2. Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change?

But even if the planet wasn’t at stake; even if 2014 wasn’t the warmest year on record until 2015 turned out even hotter, why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future?

3. Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?

I told you earlier all the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air. Well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined. Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world…But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence.

4. And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?

A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests. That’s one of our strengths, too. Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security…But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention. Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.

What I was finally able to admit last tonight is that while I do not agree with the President on every issue and I am certainly far from being a liberal, I do like him and I do believe he is doing what he thinks is best for this country. His willingness to say many of the things we are all thinking is something I would like to see more of – not in the Donald Trump sense, which is meant to use “truth” as a cudgel, but as an adult, talking to other adults about important things.

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64 thoughts on “The State of the Union

  1. I missed the speech entirely. I imagine Democrats are saying the state of our union is sound and Republicans are saying we are two inches from commie/Isis totalitarianism, right?

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  2. Roland Dodds:
    Republicans are saying we are two inches from commie/Isis totalitarianism, right?

    Haley’s GOP response was partly a warning against Trumptarianism. Of course, a female GOP establishment governor and a African-American Democratic President speaking against Trump’s policies will probably increase Trump’s support in the GOP primaries.

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  3. I was solidly pleased with Obama’s speech as I would expect any centrist liberal to be. It was a workman speech, generally factual and reflects well on both the President and his Party. I earnestly hope they’ve read the mood of the electorate correctly and that it goes over well.

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  4. It was a good final speech. I think though, that of course the opposition is going to say things are bad; if they said things were swell, they wouldn’t have anything to run on. But other than that it was one that was long on hope and short on partisan jabs.

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  5. I didn’t watch it either, but did listen to the follow up this am on NPR. As I recall he claimed victory in Afghanistan and Iraq, which is BS. He destabilized Libya, and much of north Africa, Syria, and Ukraine. We may be the most powerful country in the world, but we sure have a habit of screwing up other parts of the world.

    At least he got things going with the Cubans and Iranians. So now we’ll all sit around why nothing gets done in an election year.

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    • I agree that claiming we achieved “victory” in Afghanistan and Iraq is bullshit, but as much as I would like a different US FP, I don’t think American can carry the messed up state of Ukraine on its back. The fight in Ukraine has been a long time coming, and would have come about regardless of US support for the new government.

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    • Libya is a fair cop but I do not see how Syria or Ukraine get laid at Obama’s feet. If anything he’s generally kept us out of both regions which I’d think you’d appreciate.

      Afghanistan and Iraq are not so much Obama as standard US strategy for escaping quagmires: declare victory and leave.

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      • Ukraine, I agree with you.

        Syria? The fact that he indicated that he was capable of discussing “bright lines” with regards to chemical weapons kind of indicates that he had some sort of weird relationship to the conflict there more complicated than “we’re keeping out of it”. It’s good that we didn’t get deeper into it than we did…

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          • Given that Islam is a religion of peace, if Obama were a secret Muslim, he’d probably kill fewer people.

            That said, if I learned anything from Iraq, it’s that Henry Kissinger might not have been as bottomlessly evil as I thought he was. Political Realism has some things in its favor including the whole thing that it sometimes, occasionally, works. Had we said something like “As bad as Assad is, and he is bad, he is the frying pan as opposed to the fire and he can, in theory, play ball and we can slowly start floating transition plans once things get stable again” then we might have gotten somewhere a lot closer to “stable” than saying “we’re going to oppose Assad and we’re going to oppose ISIS and we’re going to support the moderate rebels who are never, eeeeeeeeeeeever, going to even get freaking close to being able to rule the country.”

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        • Despite the fooferaw about the “bright lines” I’m not persuaded. Obama might have been ill advised in laying down said line, it can be debated, but what was the outcome? Republicans claim he backed down and discreditted himself. Liberals, and I, see him getting pretty mad, the Russians rushing in and the end result being that all the significant chemical weapons ended up removed from the country and destroyed. Considering how Syria proceeded to degrade from that point and considering that the alternative was some kind of US direct invervention into the teeth of same said chemical weapons I am baffled how anyone could consider the results a bad thing.

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    • Afghanistan isn’t necessarily BS.

      Given that we have no freaking idea what “victory” would even look like (was it ever even defined?), it makes sense to me to say “We got Osama, killed him, hurry, mission accomplished, we’re audi.”

      Did we hope to turn Afghanistan into the country it was prior to its (assisted) radicalization?

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    • The two points that I chuckled at were about the economy and the rule of law reference. That ‘noisy base’ reference was rich as well coming from the supposed leader of the nation.

      Nikki Haley was to much a establishment puppet, trying to compel the base to ‘fall inline’. Half the time it looked like she was fishing for marginal democrats.

      Same ole’

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    • As I recall he claimed victory in Afghanistan and Iraq, which is BS. He destabilized Libya, and much of north Africa, Syria, and Ukraine.

      I don’t buy this. I used to work for the federal government, in an office that had geographic responsibility for the Middle East and North Africa. I wasn’t particularly high up the food chain, but I did write an awful lot of briefing memos for senior folks attending policy meetings on my countries and attended lots of working level meetings myself.

      Almost all of the direction coming down from the White House came down to find a way to make things better without the U.S. government having to commit too much money or risk any people. If you want to fault the Obama administration for being lacking a clear set of policy goals or a realistic sense of what the U.S. could and could not accomplish or even for being feckless, fine, but the claim that the administration destabilized these countries has no merit. The thing that that the U.S. did that destabilized other countries was to declare the GWOT and that predates Obama. Sure, he largely went along with it, but he wasn’t the impetus and there is not a lot that he could have done get that genie back into the bottle.

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      • Dude,
        We helped enforce the no fly zone in Libya. We helped the Euros get Qaddafi removed. That destabilized the whole area. Later our “embassy” there was trying to get back weapons we delivered there, to support the rebellion, so they could be transferred to Syria. None of those items was much risk to the us or much cost.

        In Ukraine we supported a bunch of fascists. I’m not saying he bears all the fault, as certainly Iraq and Afghanistan got all f’ed up when Bush invaded, but he really didn’t help. And on top of that, he’s “droning” people all over the world.

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    • Russia gets the credit for destabilizing (or, more bluntly, invading) Ukraine, but I agree with the rest of your points. Libya was the case study in why intervention is a bad idea even when, on the surface, there seem to be humanitarian grounds. Toppling Gaddafi destabilized North Africa all the way to Mali.

      We should take a lesson from that with regards to ISIS. Why do you think they attacked France? It’s not just mindless violence. They want the West to intervene. They want to use us as a recruiting tool – they know that the Afghan and Iraq Wars have been a gift to violent Islamists, and they want to keep that going. Fighting Western troops goes over a lot better than murdering their fellow Muslims does. So they are doing everything possible to provoke us.

      My proposal is to assist Lebanon, Turkey, and other countries in supporting the floods of refugees from Syria; accept refugees ourselves; and let ISIS eventually burn themselves out by making everyone hate them. The other reason for this strategy is that there isn’t any force or faction in Syria whom we can back – ISIS and Assad are both terrible. Iraq and Afghanistan were lessons that trying to create a liberal democracy ex nihilo at gunpoint does not work well.

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  6. This SOTU pretty much explains why I have moved from being a Reagan Republican to an Obama Democrat.

    Say what you want about the tenets of Reagan’s Morning In America, but dude it’s at least an ethos.

    Both presidents crafted a vision that was accessible to everyone, where anyone could claim a stake.

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    • universal pre-k, every student hands-on computer science and math classes, recruit and support more great teachers, two years of free community college for every responsible student, strengthening social security and medicare, adding retraining and wage insurance to unemployment insurance, expanding tax cuts for low income workers without kids, and curing cancer.

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  7. The most surprising thing to me was the near complete lack of anything that would address the concerns of Black Lives Matter. A single sentence about criminal justice reform, which was part of a compound sentence that included helping people battling prescription drug abuse. (which is almost a stereotypical white people problem)

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      • While true, I think there is a growing dissatisfaction with the lack of action by Democrats. The prosecutors who failed to indict police officers in the Michael Brown and Tamir Rice cases were both Democrats, along with the governor of one of those states — the one with the heavy-handed police response to protesters that catapulted BLM to national attention, as well as mayors like Rahm Emanuel.

        If black voter turn-out tanks because they’re tired of only getting lip service (and often, like in the SOTU, not even that), it will be disastrous for the Democrats.

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        • Pondering you and Kolohe’s points I admit I can’t see why Obama would have elected to leave at least a mention out of his speech. He may think, realistically, that the GOP will block everything he attempts but that’s no excuse for not at least indicating solidarity/sympathy.

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      • I also disagree that it was a election oriented speech. By its very words “5 years, 10 years, beyond”- it pretty much ignored the election (except of course, the deliberate swipes at Trumpitism).

        It’s Obama looking for a legacy. An intention that if anything he asked for does come to pass, it can be retconned into his list of historical achievements. (much like how Kennedy gets credit for the moonshot). He’s pretty much given up on trying to actually accomplish anything more. (He’s probably not even going to do the usual last minute Israel Palestine peace negotiation, between everything else being on fire and calling mission accomplished on the Iran deal)

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      • A large part of the Democratic Party is still afraid of appearing soft on crime even though crime is at record lows and talk about criminal justice reform is gaining ground. Democratic politicians tend to over learn some lessons and the Democratic coalition is a lot wider than the Republican one giving them less margin for error when it comes to appealing to various constituencies within the party. Obama might also think that he still doesn’t have the luxury of appearing as a specific national level advocate for concerns about race for a variety of reasons.

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      • I mean, not the word, but he and Nikki came down pretty clearly on opposite sides of the issue.

        From the link (not nesting quotes):

        In his address to the nation, President Obama celebrated the archetypal “protester” that many American cities have become acquainted with lately. Specifically, Obama said:

        I see it in the American who served his time, and dreams of starting over?—?and the business owner who gives him that second chance. The protester determined to prove that justice matters, and the young cop walking the beat, treating everybody with respect, doing the brave, quiet work of keeping us safe.

        In her rebuttal, Haley framed such protesting in more of a negative light:

        We’re feeling a crushing national debt, a health care plan that has made insurance less affordable and doctors less available, and chaotic unrest in many of our cities.

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          • Sure. That would have been a different message, true.

            But I’m not sure you can take an observation about help for reintegrating felons and the nobility of protesters and say there was nothing about race. Especially when the other side is blaming those same protesters for creating “chaotic unrest.”

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  8. What I was finally able to admit last tonight is that while I do not agree with the President on every issue and I am certainly far from being a liberal, I do like him and I do believe he is doing what he thinks is best for this country.

    I admit I never quite got to this point with George W. Bush at least during his presidency, and despite obviously fully subjectively understanding that feeling wrt to him, I nevertheless also admit I don’t comprehend not feeling this way about Barack Obama roughly from first contact with him. It’s weird – I do feel like I understand coming not to like Obama early on because of an expectation of great magnanimity based on his campaign rhetoric not fulfilled. I don’t think that’s justified, but I get it. I don’t get thinking from the get-go that he was not motivated by his conception of the national interest.

    And yet that’s exactly how I felt about George W. Bush all the way through. I think it was the way his people handled the election aftermath, followed by the way they (I felt) openly reveled in the power-wave they rode after 9/11. Essentially, I thought at best he failed to rein in power-mad lieutenants who prevailed on him to invade Iraq. I am starting now to be able to retrofit an account of non-malicious neglect (something many accuse Obama of on many issues, suggesting what seems obvious: the office is now far too big for one man to fill; we’ll see about a woman) that simply allowed the Iraq invasion that could be described as at least not contrary to a sincere motivation to do something like what might be best for the country.

    A big part of this is that I’m simply in the tank for Obama more than for any politician in my lifetime so far (and surely going forward; these were the years when that’s a possibility for me in terms of age, as with the Kennedy generation, the Reagan generation, or as you see now, the generation just before mine that is so committed to a Clinton restoration). Another part of it is partisanship, to be sure. I would argue, though, that another part of it is that Bush at times really did make it hard to believe he had the best interests of the country at heart, or at least that he governed his inner circle so that his commitment thereto had any influence on what was done. Enough of his top lieutenants eventually left to write books raising questions about that, that I think I have some cross-partisan support in that view.

    I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and your piece here (that passage, really) precipitated a resolution I’ll try to keep. The next time we have a Republican president, I am going to work very hard to maintain a belief that, whatever my disagreements about what constitutes the best interests of the country, s/he in fact is operating from a generic desire to do what is best for the country, whatever that means to them. I’m hoping my inability to do this wrt George W. bush turns out to be kind of a one-off born largely of the bad for the got off on with the opposition. I didn’t have as much trouble with previous Republican presidents, but I was a kid when they were in charge.

    (With a few exceptions I’m not going to extend this to occupants of lower offices, largely because in so many cases I actually don’t believe they are primarily motivated by the best interest of the country, but instead by personal advancement up to and until they arrive in the Oval Office. But I will try to make more allowance for when I think I see evidence of that good intent on all sides.)

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    • Sorry, let me annotate that first sentence.

      I admit I never quite got to this point with George W. Bush [feeling reasonably sure he was doing what he thought was best for the country] at least during his presidency, and despite obviously fully subjectively understanding that feeling [*not* feeling he was doing what he thought was best for the country, because that’s how I feel] wrt to him, I nevertheless also admit I don’t comprehend not feeling this way [feeling he was doing what he thought was best for the country] about Barack Obama roughly from first contact with him.

      If that’s any clearer. …I.e., even though I felt a certain way about GWB (feeling from the beginning that he very well might not have generally acted out of concern for what he thought was best for the country), I nevertheless *don’t* comprehend feeling this way about Barack Obama (not from the beginning anyway, maybe not at all.)

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  9. Point 3 illustrates why, as you say, I like Obama even while disagreeing with many of his policies and actions. He is sane and rational and thoughtful, and in United States federal politics those are unfortunately rare commodities.

    It’s good that he’s talking about income inequality, but it would be far better if he had done something about it. If you want an illustration of the scale of the problem: over 75% of wealth in the US is held by 10% of the population. About 25% of wealth is held by the top 0.1%. This is a level of inequality the US has not seen since the Great Depression.

    This is a trend directly caused by right-wing policies from Reagan onwards: in 1980, the top 0.1% accounted for 7% of the United States’ wealth (compared to around 25% now). Right-wing policies have been ascendant since the ’80s, and similar trends towards wealth concentration exist over that time exist in many other OECD countries..

    Which is why I don’t entirely agree with Obama’s fourth point. When most of the country’s politicians are dedicated to benefiting the extremely wealthy at the expense of everyone else, we need to call that as it is. Because they’re not acting in the people’s or the country’s best interests.

    http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/nov/13/us-wealth-inequality-top-01-worth-as-much-as-the-bottom-90

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