Tuesday, January 25, 2011

State Of The Union: Full Of Hot Air

The 2011 state of the union speech was less a report on the state of our blessed union, and more a pep rally for pie in the sky projects. As Michelle Obama said in 2008, Obama's speech tonight was less about “the world as it is” and more about “the world as [he thnks] it should be.”

One of his central points was that the worst of the recession (the worst one that most of us can remember, by the way, just in case you forgot) is over, and the stock market has roared back.  This is a far cry from the President who, when the market dropped every time he spoke in 2009, said "It bobs up and down day to day, and if you spend all your time worrying about that, then you're probably going to get the long-term strategy wrong."  But now that it's approaching 12,000 it's a mark of success.  Of course, it's built upon company profits generated in part because companies aren't hiring, or are hiring contracted labor.  But don't worry, with 15,000,000 people out of work and another 15,000,000 underemployed, the worst is behind us.
He did have one phrase that caught my attention, and it’s one of the first I have heard from him that I agree with. He said, of our global competition for skills and jobs, that this is our “sputnik moment.” What we do after this will determine if we regain control of our collective destiny, or sink into a morass of complacency and dependence. Unfortunately, the 'what we do next' part was long on imagery and short on solutions. As usual.

On education, he touted the ‘race to the top’ program as being the salvation of the education system. I personally haven’t heard much about this program so it’s hard to offer a critique, but like most of his programs it centers on making the government (in this case the school system) responsible for the outcome.  In other words, he wants the government to be responsible for the outsome of the education of America’s children rather than the parents and the children themselves. Everyone in the public school system is essentially on a scholarship, paid for by the members of their communities. Any system that allows the individual to be absolved of any responsibility for their performance is doomed to fail.

He also touted the reform of the student loan program as making college more affordable for millions of kids. What he didn’t mention was that the savings was divided into two piles – one aimed predominately at minority colleges and universities, and the other pile went to help fund the health care reform bill. This says two things – first, that funding education for America’s kids – ALL of America’s kids – is not his top priority, and secondly that his health care bill was not affordable on its own merits. More on this in a minute.

The final point he made regarding education was done in an attempt to tie immigration reform to our country’s success. He said that children of illegal immigrants are some of our most successful and brightest students (I'd like to see evidence to support that claim!), who, in his words, “pledge allegiance to” the same flag we do. I laughed out loud when I heard that, because as we all know, much of our liberal school system is no longer allowed to say the Pledge because of those two despicable words ‘under God.’ If immigration reform includes teaching in English only and reciting the Pledge on a daily basis, I might be able to support it.

Back to health care, Obama said he would welcome ideas from the GOP about how to make the health care bill better. If this sounds familiar, it’s because he also said it in last year’s SOTU in January 29, 2009. Shortly afterward, he was pressed by Tom Price (R-GA) about saying the GOP has no ideas, and he responded with a denial: “I remember that speech pretty well. It was only two days ago. . . . I said I'd welcome ideas that you might provide. I didn't say that you haven't provided ideas. I said I'd welcome those ideas that you'll provide."  This year, he said the same thing, then essentially admitted he ignored Republicans by indicating he would consider adding tort reform to the bill – an “idea put forth last year.”

He made a plea to avoid repeal of the bill, saying it would add "a quarter of a trillion dollars" to the deficit.  As opposed to the trillion it will cost to keep it in place?  Sounds like perhaps he got his math skills from one of those failing public schools.

He also recycled the idea of government transparency by proposing a web site where we citizens can go view how and where our tax dollars are being spent. If this sounds familiar, it’s because he campaigned on a similar promise – to have legislation up for review on the White House web site for 5 days of public comment before taking it forward for a vote. He broke that promise with the very first piece of legislation he signed (the public was invited to comment AFTER he signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law).

Speaking of taxes, here he was full of contradictions. He touted lowering the tax burden for Americans while wanting to raise taxes on the rich. He touted the great work congress did by extending the Bush-era tax cuts, while saying that these extensions can’t go on forever. He wants to remove tax barriers for businesses to spur job creation while punishing the oil industry with higher taxes.

He returned to form regarding business as weel.  He spoke of reducing subsidies to oil companies, which is his most hated of all industries.  He has to make oil more, and really all conventional forms of energy more expensive as it’s imperative that he drive up energy costs for his renewable energy plan, which he droned on about for the first 15 minutes of the speech, to succeed. He’s calling for massive spending on renewable energy, calling out the specific success of a plant making solar roof shingles (with the help of a government grant – i.e. taxpayer money), but the problem he doesn’t discuss is that it’s too expensive to have a market. A kilowatt of electricity produced by gas fired power plants costs about 4 cents. Coal is about 5 cents per kilowatt (as is wind energy, which is not ‘always on’ and therefore is unreliable). Hydroelectric costs about 8 cents, nuclear costs around 12 cents, geothermal about 17 cents  Last but also least, is solar at 22 cents per kilowatt (and that’s a vast improvement over the past). In short, the only way there is going to be a market for alternative forms of energy is if the conventional costs rise to 2 or 3 times (or more) of the current costs. This is what Obama himself alluded to when he said of his cap & trade energy plan that costs would ‘necessarily skyrocket,” but of course this was left out of tonight’s discussion altogether.

In summary, the state of the union speech was less about the union and more about reelection. It was much akin to his campaign speeches of 2008, even recycling many of the same themes from the last two years. Obama has returned to what he does best – deliver a talk high on promise, low on details, high on ‘hope’ and low on reality. Truly, the 2012 presidential campaign has begun.

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