What a pleasure it is, in the wake of Presidents’ Day, to write something upbeat about President Obama. As disappointing as I found his second inaugural address, I am pleased to disagree with commentators from right to left who found fault with his State of the Union message last week. I thought it was pretty good. For the first time in my observations, he actually seemed to take the deficit seriously, though he could not avoid recourse to refuge in his old mouse-hole of the serried ranks of unnamed economists “who say we need $4 trillion in deficit reduction to stabilize our finances.” I don’t believe there are such economists; they are the flip side of the “economic royalists, monopolists, and war profiteers” that FDR used to rail against in the Thirties, to the delight of his followers. (There were no war profiteers or “malefactors of great wealth” in the U.S. in the Thirties. But it was a convenient cul-de-sac into which he could sweep public anger, where it could harmlessly dissipate itself — though it still rankles with the contemporary nincompoop Right, which holds that FDR didn’t alleviate the Depression but won four straight terms through electoral flimflam.)
To President Obama’s phantom gallery of economists is imputed the view that if the country cuts just $400 billion a year from what the deficit will be if no changes are made to taxing and spending, for ten years, all will be well. No, it won’t: The accumulated deficit, which was $10 trillion four years ago, and is $17 trillion today, will be $27 trillion in ten years on that scenario, and, in the words of Douglas MacArthur (referring to nuclear war), “Armageddon will be at our door.”
But Mr. Obama spoke of a combination of spending cuts, his tokenistic tax increase on the “one percent” who have replaced FDR’s “economic royalists” (perhaps a few of the most venerable span both demonizations), and the favorite and longest-running of Washington’s parlor games, combining the best aspects of Clue and Trivial Pursuit: reducing “loopholes.” Progress, then, was not so much in content as in tone and tenor: give and take, compromise — yes, from this president. He did speak of Medicare cuts, reductions of drug prices (as Americans now pay four times as much for the same medicine as Canadians and Western Europeans and those in other advanced countries such as Australia and Japan).
And the president did outline a reform program — one that dealt with the country’s uncompetitive, crumbling public-education system; its disintegrating infrastructure (including, he said, 70,000 defective bridges); its immigration system; and the particular needs of its 20 economically hardest-hit communities. A State of the Union message isn’t the place for too much specificity, but at least there was the basis of a comprehensive plan to try to address the country’s grievances. Of course, there were incongruities: The U.S. now has greater domestic oil production than at any time in the past 15 years, and lower imports of foreign oil than in the past 20 years, but this administration has frequently opposed the causes of these improvements, including aggressive (but environmentally prudent) offshore and hydraulic-fracturing drilling. Obama may deserve some of the credit for doubling the mileage per gallon of American automobiles, though he will have to share it with other administrations, and the doubling of energy production from renewable sources has largely been at unsustainable cost. But at least the inevitable harping about global warming stopped well short of cap-and-trade, and didn’t go overboard into the rising waters, claiming human activities were responsible for it.
The president certainly took the full measure of liberties customary on such occasions, saying, for example, that his administration had “cleared away the rubble of crisis” with 6 million new jobs. Caterpillar, Ford, and Apple were patted on the head for repatriating manufacturing jobs, of which the president claimed 500,000 have returned from abroad already. (Incidentally, one of the great blunders of American public policy of the past 30 years has been the outsourcing of 60 million low-paying jobs while informally admitting 20 million illegal aliens into the country. No one seems to ask why the same people weren’t legally admitted, at no risk to their lives, to save 20 million of the jobs that fled and take some of the pressure off the Sisyphean current account deficit, which is still over $600 billion a year.)