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.)
As distinguished publisher and real-estate developer Mortimer Zuckerman pointed out in the Wall Street Journal on February 16, the president’s 45 incantations of the word “jobs” in the State of the Union address cannot disguise the proportions of the unemployment crisis in the country. Though Mr. Zuckerman overstated the comparability to the crisis of the Thirties (there were closer to 17 million than 13 million unemployed then, in a population of about 125 million and with no direct government relief for the jobless), he is right to stress the facts that 48 million people are now in the food-stamps program, 15 percent of the population and almost double the percentage that used food stamps in the period from 1970 to 2000; and that 11 million Americans are on Social Security for disabilities, half of them added to the rolls in the last four years, and more than twice the percentage of the work force than the same category of benefit-recipients of 20 years ago. (There are also 48 million Americans with a criminal record: an even more shocking figure, ignored, like almost every other aspect of the American justice system, which the president celebrated in this year’s address by quoting the sign that greeted him in Burma recently: “There is justice and law in the United States.” One should not count on it.)
While there are 6 million more jobs than at the trough of the current economic drought, there are also more than 6 million fewer than there were when it began, $7 trillion of deficit spending ago. The chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Alan Krueger, may be correct to claim that “the economy is going through a lot of healing,” referring to stock- and housing-market recoveries that have regained 85 percent of lost value. But Mort Zuckerman was closer to the truth when he wrote that the real unemployment number is 14.5 percent, not the 7.9 percent officially acknowledged, because the official figures ignore more than 8 million people who seek full-time work and are employed only part-time, 10 million people who have given up looking for work and have fallen out of the statistical base, and the seasonal nature of many recent hires.
The U.S. is only at an early stage of retrieving manufacturing jobs and reemphasizing employment that adds value, rather than the ever-growing number of lawyers, consultants, public-sector employees, and benefit recipients who are, whatever their merit in many individual cases, essentially a taxation on the productive aspects of the system. The country has just begun to reduce its addiction to the unaffordable service economy. There are now, according to the Senate Budget Committee, eleven states that have more welfare beneficiaries than employed people, including four of the seven most populous states: California, New York, Illinois, and Ohio. Counting food stamps, child support, and Medicaid, the average family below the poverty line receives $168 per day; even as the median income per family is about $50,000, or $137.13 per day. Welfare pays $30 an hour for a 40-hour week, and work $25 per hour.
The implications of these numbers recall one of the many gaffes in the late Romney campaign, but they belie the president’s and Mr. Krueger’s sunny words. Still, the president’s speech was not antagonistic, divisive, or devoid of imagination. He even spoke of a desire to “improve the voting experience in America.” That is a commendable objective, one that will require better candidates than the U.S. has had for its highest offices since the Reagan era. And to remind us of what can be done, in this Presidents’ Day week, I trot out one of my old pet ideas (like naming a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier after Martin Luther King): Let us have Presidents’ Day one week earlier and declare that it covers from January 30 to February 22, and thus embraces Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, as well as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln (and, incidentally, William H. Harrison). Those were surely the country’s four greatest presidents; there are great presidents out there, in the land of Joe the Plumber; and there is little wrong with the country that would not be ameliorated if one were just found and elevated. In the meantime, we should take a little comfort from the relatively reasonable words of the only president the country has now.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and the recently published A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at email@example.com.