President Obama and the State of the Union: After the Moving Partisan Oratory, the Problems Remain

–Richard E. Vatz

Barack Obama could have used his extraordinary elocutionary talents in last night’s State of the Union address last night to outline the policies he would embark on to solve the structural deficit and national debt crises that face our country, but he didn’t. He could have addressed the growing international problems we face with a diminishing military, but he didn’t.

Mitt Romney, the likely but no longer certain Republican nominee for president this year, in a speech ahead of the president’s accused Mr. Obama of making campaign speeches instead of substantively dealing with America’s problems.

That was prescient analysis.

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President Obama used the uniquely powerful real estate of the State of the Union address mostly to reiterate that the country’s financial problems are due to obstructionist Republicans and the self-concerned wealthy.

He affected incredulity – why cannot these conservatives just focus on “The Mission.” That’s what troops do, he said – they serve “as one unit, serving one nation, leaving no one behind.” Contrasting the selflessness asked of Republicans (and rejected) to that requested of the U.S. SEAL team (and accepted), the president argued, when they got Osama bin Laden, it didn’t matter whether they were Democrats or Republicans: “All that mattered that day was the mission…no one thought about politics… the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other…”

The president erroneously portrays political disagreement on how we accomplish the mission for the mission itself, which is fixing the economy. In one of his characteristically false analogues, people agreed on both the mission of getting bin Laden and the strategy of how to get him.

Regarding the economy, President Obama argued repeatedly that one of the solutions is that “everyone does their [sic] fair share” and that the issue is making “folks like me [pay] my fair share of taxes…”

The president argued that “Tax reform should follow the Buffett Rule. If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes.”

The two-fold argument against this approach is that even if millionaires (often in presidential speeches conflated with the far more wealthy “billionaires”) paid the increases Obama wants on their income taxes, it would make only a tiny dent in the national debt over ten years, although the range of estimates are breathtaking. Moreover, such taxes, which hurt small businesses taxed as individuals, severely affect employment.

But the rhetorical point is that the president did not honestly engage the arguments of those who disagree with him. There was no discussion of entitlements, the $500 billion decrease in military budget, the 8.4% unemployment rate, and how presidential policies would significantly reduce such a number outside of government hiring. There was the usual non-specific recommendation to “Expand tax relief to small businesses that are raising wages and creating good jobs.” That seems like a restrictive clause, but no matter: it was short and unspecified.

The president uses as his touchstone for tax change the current situation for the payroll tax cut and the situation before the Bush era for eliminating “tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.” The former, which helps the 47% who pay no income tax, goes to fund Social Security, and the latter, which allows people to keep some of their own money, goes to the general fund. Why are the years of comparison relevant? You could — and Democrats do — point to the confiscatory taxes of the Eisenhower years and say “Look at the break the well-to-do are getting, as contrasted with that era.” But the fact that there is precedent for unfair policy does not make that policy a reasonable basis for comparison.

Comparisons and contrasts with prior policies are somewhat arbitrary, but that doesn’t stop the president from making them to favor his pro-government spending preferences.

The president confidently interpreted his foreign policy as yielding success, but this was not a long-term assessment. Withdrawal of troops is always an easy way to build a temporary peace. The instability of the war situations in Iraq and Afghanistan went unaddressed. The situation in the Mideast went unaddressed. Pakistan went unaddressed, except to say that al Qaeda is scrambling. Let me praise one presidential sentence on a crucial foreign policy issue: “Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.” Good, if he means it.

The issues of taxes, government spending and a strong foreign policy were not engaged as problems to be solved. President Obama’s State of the Union was a classic campaign speech with good guys, bad guys and rhetorical flourishes, without good substantive confronting of the long-term financial and foreign policy questions that face the United States.

It’s a pity, for after the partisan cheering dies down for the magical oratory, the problems remain.

Professor Vatz teaches political persuasion at Towson University and is author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2012)

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