January 2011 Archives

Obama's State of the Union, and the Economy

On the eve of Obama's 2011 State of the Union address, the internet was aflutter. What tone would he take? Would he impart some lesson from the Tucson shooting? What would he say about the economy? China? How would energy and the environment fare now that Carol Browner had departed? People passionately speculated about the agenda: The right for everyone to marry? Nutrition? Social Security? As if the president were entering to-do items in his day planner, not delivering a rhetorical soothing for the left and the right on a cold February night.

As president, Obama maintains the aura of inclusiveness that he radiated during his campaign - up to a point. He promises the barnyard, but delivers ham sandwiches, a mediative style that has irritated both Democrats and Republicans. After the Tucson shooting, however, the criticism from both sides became softer. Independent voters in particular stopped demanding that Obama deliver fierier bang for their buck. Suddenly, conciliation seemed like a wise route. So for the State of the Union then, the President's innate and apparently immutable style coincided with the subdued mood of the country.

Representatives sat together, a gesture and process commentators mocked as prom-like and silly. But it meant a speech without the grandstanding and jeering, and to me, set a more serious, deliberative - and dare I say - appropriate tone for the State of the Union. Really, people need to just settle down, it's not a rugby match. They're not all that different in their positioning, and after a point all the "deliberation" is just obstructive. Lobbyists mostly write the laws, and give to Democrats and Republicans equally. In truth, Democrats and Republicans all spend most of their time jousting, simply so one or the other can get closer to the federal dollar spigot.

Obama denied re-election was anyone's goal-- "At stake right now is not who wins the next election -- after all, we just had an election". Of course, that's a syllogistic fallacy. And wait -- did Obama snicker when he said it? Wink? Anyway, if the US fails to thrive, it stems from our inability to win in the international economic arena that both parties and business helped architect over the last half century, not in differences between the "two parties".

The Economy, The Nation

During his first campaign, Obama promised everything to everyone, as campaigners must. In this State of the Union he focused on the economy and asked Americans to focus on it too. Therefore, no marriage, no gun control, no immigration, no disturbing science phrases such as "climate change", just a joke about "smoked salmon" a la McCain, that the average American apparently thought was the most memorable part of the speech.

As for the economy, corporate profits are rebounding, but employment and housing statistics fail to impress. That left the president assuring the citizens that the country is on an upward, prosperous swing. Indeed, by some measures it is. Today, the Dow bounded up agreeably. So if re-election were his goal, between his appointment of GE's Jeffrey Immelt, his SOU suggestion about business tax cuts, and his restriction of incendiary terms like "climate change" in favor of vague hand-waving about "energy technology", he should by leaving Republicans worried and scrambling to distinguish themselves.

But will re-election stances turn the economy around? Sway voters? The fact that US citizens can't earn the living they're used to in today's global economy won't be easily solved by either Republicans or Democrats. Obama hardly said anything about China, but workers are concerned. Amy Chua tweaked our national psyche by clanging us over the head with her book "Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother" (or, in China, "Being a Mom in America"), claiming the superiority of Chinese parenting, of course ties into test scores, career success, and our national competitiveness, if not supremacy.

Chua's unsettling book coincided with the choice of the Chinese piano piece "My Motherland", for the recent US-China state dinner. Chosen for it's melody, the song was reportedly from a movie story about China conquering the US. Officials called it "a Chinese folk song". It could have been worse. They didn't hire Pete Seeger to offer up an American folk song like, "This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land". They didn't hire a jester to entertain by reciting test scores of a recent international test, where Shanghai and Hong Kong came in first and third in math, science and just about every other category, while the US came in somewhere between about 20th and 30th.

As Americans are wont to do, Obama differentiated the US education system as one that's creative, that discusses important ideas, like: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" But how many eight year old kids prompted to say "a doctor" will actually succeed in the public school system then find an workable health system when they graduate? Obama stressed (like Chua) that it was the parents that made a difference. But it's also the initiatives of a robust government that helps assure competitive schools and a good health system. But that's tough since the issues surrounding schools and health are hard to discuss around an election cycle, or in a State of the Union, or anytime.

China is not really the reason the US has high unemployment, but it makes people insecure, as did Russia and Japan. Perhaps Chinese energy technology and high speed train systems will spur the US on, and like the need for renewable energy or the need to revive a faltering economy, motivate some "Sputnik moment".

Obama himself did not dwell on China in this year's or last year's address. But China pays attention to the State of the Union. Liu Ge, a Chinese political commentator recently observed that the President didn't meet last year's State of the Union promise to bring unemployment to 8%. (Tiger commentator.)

Hopefully the elected officials will come up with solutions after the State of the Union 'sitting together' gesture. Or else the US politicians will be fated to argue dramatically among themselves in global obsolescence just as heartily as the British Parliament.

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