The Bigger Picture
Published on February 4th 2010 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
Today I want to discuss the State of America and, more specifically, the reaction of myself and others to President Obama’s first State of the Union Address.
Although the President’s State of the Union address to Congress and the American people is an annual January ritual, President Obama’s speech last Wednesday evening came at a particularly critical moment in American politics. Only one year into his first four year term as America’s 44th President, Obama was and still is grappling with a whole host of foreign and domestic problems that previous administrations were either unable or unwilling to address.
The Iraq War was initiated by a Republican President and backed by a Republican controlled Congress that financed it by using off budget supplemental appropriations. Unfortunately for President Obama and Congressional Democrats, the Bush administration’s Iraq War gambit wasn’t the only fiscally foolish move made by members of the Republican Party while they held the reins of power.
Shortly after taking control of Congress and the Presidency at the turn of this century, Republicans also implemented a huge tax cut that turned a 200 billion dollar a year federal budget surplus into a trillion dollar plus annual budget deficit. Then to make matters worse, these same Republicans added a new prescription drug benefit to an already woefully underfunded Medicare health insurance plan. But like the Iraq war, Republican political leaders in Washington didn’t provide any financing for it.
It should therefore come as no surprise (to anyone familiar with budgets) that the consequences of cutting taxes but not government spending coupled with financing the Iraq war and new healthcare entitlements with no additional government revenues, is seriously depleted government coffers and trillion dollar budget deficits. Unfortunately for President Obama and Democrats in Congress, many Americans have now become justifiably alarmed about these trillion dollar budget deficits, but seem to associate them with the current Congress rather than previous Republican administrations which ushered them in during better economic times.
To his credit President Obama used his first State of the Union address as an opportunity to remind the American people, as well as those Republicans who oppose any and all attempts by President Obama to address America’s problems, that he inherited America’s current 1.35 trillion dollar deficit from his predecessor. Although President Obama’s economic stimulus measures will increase the size of future budget deficits, the vast majority of economists believe these expenditures are justified in order to avoid a prolonged economic recession lasting several more years.
In fact most economists both inside the United States and around the world will readily acknowledge the need for large government deficits during times of economic recession. However, they will also decry the misuse of deficit spending to finance large tax cuts, offensive wars and new entitlement programs during better economic times such as the Republicans did during the past decade. But because voters in America and elsewhere have notoriously short memories at times, I think it’s also a good idea to constantly remind them of how they got to where they are now.
So I have to admit that I found myself stifling a laugh when I heard some Republicans were grumbling about President Obama blaming some of the nation’s current problems on the previous Republican administration during his speech. Of course they don’t like hearing that kind of stuff because they want voters to forget their role in creating or not addressing these problems before the next election. But I think the adage “The Truth Hurts” is what really applies to my Republican friends.
President Obama is one of the best speech makers I have ever heard and he did not disappoint with his first State of the Union address. He delivered the speech in a very relaxed and confident manner that was quite folksy but also very determined. I also thought the President’s State of the Union address had one dominant message but that it was aimed at two distinctly different audiences.
The dominant message was that President Obama shared the American voter’s economic pain as well as their frustration with Wall Street and Washington politics. He also used humor at various times throughout his speech to help him emphasize a particular point. On one occasion he noted that he hated the financial bailout as much as most other Americans saying that the bank bailout “was about as popular as a root canal.” He also acknowledged that he should have done a better job communicating with the American public about his healthcare reforms by saying “by now it should be fairly obvious that I didn’t take on health care because it was good politics.”
So in both tone and tenor, throughout most of his address President Obama was speaking to his primary audience; American voters sitting at home in their living rooms watching him on TV. But he wasn’t trying to appeal to all Americans, but rather to middle class Americans, particularly those who are Independent voters. The confident but genial and conciliatory tone of voice, his folksy charm and use of self deprecating humor is a style of delivery that appeals to these kinds of Americans.
But President Obama also had a message of warning for his other audience; the Democrats and Republican members of Congress sitting in the House chamber. He began by scolding his own party for not showing enough backbone in support for healthcare reform saying; “I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills,”
He also warned Republicans about the folly of their tactics saying; “if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, a supermajority, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership.” Next week I will discuss President Obama’s subsequent debate with his Republican adversaries.