Saturday, January 28, 2012

The State of the Union

Any doubt that Barack Obama wants to enter into a new version of the 1950s vanished the other night during the State of the Union. He said so virtually in his first words:

We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world. (Applause.) For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. (Applause.) For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country. (Applause.) Most of al Qaeda’s top lieutenants have been defeated. The Taliban’s momentum has been broken, and some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home.

These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America’s Armed Forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.

Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example. (Applause.) Think about the America within our reach: A country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs. A future where we’re in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren’t so tied to unstable parts of the world. An economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded.

We can do this. I know we can, because we’ve done it before. At the end of World War II, when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known. (Applause.) My grandfather, a veteran of Patton’s Army, got the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. My grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line, was part of a workforce that turned out the best products on Earth.

The two of them shared the optimism of a nation that had triumphed over a depression and fascism. They understood they were part of something larger; that they were contributing to a story of success that every American had a chance to share -- the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.

Those were indeed inspiring words, and we shall see in a moment that Obama has in fact been trying to move in that direction for years; but the analogy, sadly, is false. While the individual soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown even more dedication than the veterans of the Second World War, measured by the number and length of the tours many of them have spent in combat, they are a tiny minority of the population compared to the ten million men who returned home in 1945. President Obama did not mention the GI bill or the housing programs that made life easier for returning veterans, much less the 91% marginal rates that topped the tax code. And while the problem in 1945 was to maintain the full employment that the war had brought about, today we are struggling with the long-term decline of employment in America driven by market forces and by a business ethos that no longer cares about the impact of decisions upon American society. One of the most important pieces of recent journalism appeared last Sunday: this New York Times account of how Apple decided to locate most of its manufacturing and assembly plants outside the US, most notably in China. It holds out little hope that things will be reversed any time soon.

An equally important piece of reportage was Ryan Lizza's piece on Obama in The New Yorker, drawing on internal White House documents, many of them including check marks and marginal notes from the President himself. The President and his staff have been entirely sincere about striking a non-partisan pose, appealing to moderate voters across the United States--I am tempted to say, all three of them--and finding ways to cut the budget. The trend continued in the state of the union. Any serious attempt to move us away from fossil fuels is obviously dead: the President opened up thousands of square miles of ocean to offshore drilling and extolled our natural gas reserves. We have apparently found the solution to our long-standing energy problems: allow the major financial institutions to bid the price of oil high enough to make domestic production profitable. The President also talked about cutting back regulations--which most of the people I know in business do believe have become much too cumbersome--and about reducing corporate taxes, which are already, in real terms, very low. He drew a surprising amount of perfunctory applause from John Boehner, sitting behind him, but I doubt there is the slightest chance of the Republican Party in Congress passing anything he puts forth. His relationship to them remains similar to that of Andrew Johnson, even though he, unlike Andrew Johnson, is more than willing to meet his radical Republicans half way. How all this will play out in November is hard to say. RealClearPolitics has just run a poll showing that every single presidential candidate has a higher disapproval than approval rating. The President's differential is the smallest, a mere 2%, and the Republican Party is paying the price both for its new style of campaigning and for the Citizens United decision as its competitors devour one another. But Obama will not get--and does not seem to want--a sweeping mandate.

Last but not least, the President has been genuinely committed to debt reduction. The Republicans turned down his grand bargain last summer, but if he wins again they may have no choice but to accept. The Pentagon really faces tremendous cuts. Our last great foreign adventure is winding down and official Pentagon policy says it will not be repeated: there will be no more "long-term, large-scale stability operations," the euphemism for the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The federal budget moves according to the generational cycle that Strauss and Howe identified, and our periodic national crises always show a huge increase in the national debt. So it has been this time. The debt doubled under George W. Bush and has been increasing even more rapidly ever since as a result of the economic crisis. It is nowhere near as big in real terms as it was in 1945, as I pointed out some months ago, or probably in 1865 either, but it has still become a center of national concern. The terrible thing, this time, is that we have no great achievements to show for it--not even a renewal of belief in our institutions. And now the public is weary of crusades.

The course of the President's first term, as laid out both by Ron Suskind's book which I discussed last week and by Lizza's article, effectively rules out a broad new crusade at home to put people back to work and seriously curtail the power of institutions like big banks and health insurance companies. And to the extent that global warming indeed results from burning fossil fuels--something of which I personally am not certain--it will continue. Yet I do not think the kind of unity the President dreams of is anywhere near, whether he is re-elected or not. In the campaigns of the Gilded Age, Democrats continued to label Republicans the party of tyranny and Republicans called Democrats the party of treason for decades after the war. The President has unilaterally disarmed the Democrats in the similar battle that is being waged today. We shall see whether he can bring the battle to an end, or whether his premature cease-fire will instead lead to new victories for the other side, with incalculable consequences.

At the conclusion of his speech the President returned to where he had started.

One of my proudest possessions is the flag that the SEAL Team took with them on the mission to get bin Laden. On it are each of their names. Some may be Democrats. Some may be Republicans. But that doesn’t matter. Just like it didn’t matter that day in the Situation Room, when I sat next to Bob Gates -- a man who was George Bush’s defense secretary -- and Hillary Clinton -- a woman who ran against me for president.

All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves. One of the young men involved in the raid later told me that he didn’t deserve credit for the mission. It only succeeded, he said, because every single member of that unit did their job -- the pilot who landed the helicopter that spun out of control; the translator who kept others from entering the compound; the troops who separated the women and children from the fight; the SEALs who charged up the stairs. More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other -- because you can’t charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there’s somebody behind you, watching your back.

So it is with America. Each time I look at that flag, I’m reminded that our destiny is stitched together like those 50 stars and those 13 stripes. No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we are joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, and our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.

To rebuild the nation together, I fear, would take far more unity, inspiration and sacrifice than we seem to have available. The re-election of Barack Obama would be far better than any alternative; but we shall continue to mark time on the issues most critical to the country. The State of our Union is not strong, but perilously tenuous. May it slowly knit it self together again as a new generation moves upward in the workplace. Mine, sadly, has had its chance.


Eric said...

Dr. kaiser,
Regarding high oil prices, they may be just the thing to spur alternative energy innovations. In the short term, domestic drilling will help us to have a secure supply of energy without significant disruptions to our economy. In fact, oil and gas are one of the few industries expanding employment. They are good paying jobs too. Rest assured, as the price of energy remains high, the seeds of alternative energy sources are being sown. The potential rewards are astronomically high for the company that can make a major breakthrough in replacing fossil fuels.

James50 said...

The biggest mistake of the Obama presidency was that he ignored Bowles-Simpson. If he were "genuinely" committed to deficit reduction, he would have gotten behind it. I do not see how you can say he was committed to deficit reduction.

KD said...


You would have a much better sense than I of whether the divisions in our country, compared to other points in our history, are new, made newly powerful by the forces of media and money, or likely to be a phase we should pass through as new leaders rise to maturity. It does seem odd to me that for so long, so many people who stand to benefit from greater economic fairness still support those who really have no interest in such changes. Am I being mislead? Didn't Mills write The Power Elite in the 1950s? Has it ever been any different, and is fairness just another game of smoke and mirrors? I wonder, as much as I wonder if I'll see anything change in my lifetime. As always, thanks for your insights and hard work on this blog.

Kevin of Arabia

Bob H said...

Wow. Professor, how is it that you remain uncertain that global warming is caused by the burning of fossil fuels?

Publion said...

I especially concur with the definition of Boomer: I was born at the end of the 1940s, recall JFK clear as a bell, and though I did not experience FDR (remembering almost nothing of HST either) I lived in a world where he was discussed as if he were still an active presence on the scene.

Those 1950s were a seductive time for Boomers: the nation – for all the alarums of the Cold War and assorted excitements of domestic politics – was indeed the most powerful, and certainly the most wealthy and productive, nation on the planet in all of human history.

And as kids will do, I unthinkingly assumed that that situation was a ‘fact’ of Nature and History – a static and eternal part of the ‘background’ that was taken for granted like the wallpaper in your grandparents’ living room.

(Although I recall that scene in ‘Ben Hur’ in 1959, when Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur, now a Roman patrician by virtue of having been sent to the galleys and saved the life of the Admiral-Consul (who says prison sentences and shipwrecks can’t have an upside?), is advised by a Pontius Pilate soon to be going to distant Judea as governor. Get in good with the powers of this world, advises Pilate, adding in a gravid by-the-by, “and at the moment, that power is Rome”. It struck my young mind that worldly dominance, even for nations, can go south and even go away. I had many a philosophical banana split reflecting on that confounding possibility.)

Thus when the mid-60s came, I saw my generation gleefully kick over the whole shebang, in a stunning and numerically imposing display of adolescent opposition to ‘grown-ups’ combined with (and to some extent masquerading as) political insight.

Now, at the conclusion of forty-plus years of political excitements, during which so much has changed (to put it nicely), I am in my 60s and surveying both the course and adventures of my life to date, and the surrounding national and world scene.

I cannot imagine that any of the upcoming generations are really going to be equipped to fix what my generation has broken. One need only, say, leaf through Harry V. Jaffa’s 2000 book “A New Birth of Freedom” or Jacob Needleman’s 2002 book “The American Soul”, to realize that none of the following generations have been educated – have been given the conceptual tools or inducted into the life-path of virtues and ‘true grit’ – sufficiently to effect any repairs, or even to conduct an accurate damage assessment.

So, since the economy rules out ‘retirement’ in the classical (1950s) sense of the word, then I am opting for continuing to do what I might to help fix what in an earlier incarnation my Boomer generation rather too gleefully and callowly treated like play-dough.

The way I see it, these upcoming generations are otherwise not going to be able to fix the damage, nor long sustain the Republic or even themselves.

So I propose the ‘new normal’ as a battle-cry: No retirement! Not until we have, as we were once wisely exhorted, managed to “bind up the nation’s wounds” and “achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations”.

Anonymous said...

Hope'n'Change's new plea is so very very touching: If only America was more like the army, everything would go a lot more smoothly! Not that any Republican (uppercase 'R') hack would disagree, of course.

Clarity is important: This country simply is not a functioning republic. It no longer has any of the republican virtues. (Both lowercase 'r's, there.) The only real question is whether we're going to fizzle away quietly, or look for some "hero" promising "solutions".
-- sglover


It's pretty clear we the people have been abandoned. It is little different from the stuggle of Oligarch against populist in Athens more than 2,000 years ago. It is playing out again. Why don't you consider the scope of what is happeneing rather than narrowly considering only the last couple of centuries?!! Things are coming to a head and the struggle is no different from what it was and always has been except that in these times the contrasts are stark enough even for the uneducated to appreciate in however misguided a fashion they see it. the fact that both LEFT and Right see it is indisputable. Obama is bought and sold no less than the rest of the Television Establishment. But it will not be televised this time, By God! It will be a reckoning and make no mistake, the longer this goes on the more violent the reaction.