"Words, Words, Words"

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on February 25, 2009

Let it never be said that Barack Obama is not a very good communicator. While he has rightly been critiqued as being far better in front of a teleprompter than he is as an extemporaneous speaker, the fact remains that he is an exceedingly good orator when in front of a teleprompter. And since most people don’t bother to make a distinction between prepared speechmaking and extemporaneous speechmaking, Obama’s oratorical legend will likely not take any hits anytime soon.

It certainly will not take any hits after the President’s non-State of the Union address. But while the delivery of the speech was excellent, the actual content left much to be desired.

Any analysis of the speech begins, of course, with the general tone–highly partisan and highly ideological. The President mentioned that neither party was free from blame for the current economic crisis but this perfunctory nod towards bipartisanship quickly gave way to a general theme that had the President blaming the Bush Administration for everything that went wrong with the economy. Of course, the President might have consulted a more rigorous analysis of the factors that led to the recession, but then, his political prospects would not have been served by such a forthright examination. Nor would his agenda have prospered; White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s now-famous statement that one ought not to waste a serious crisis has “Shock Doctrine” written all over it, but instead of books decrying the blatant opportunism displayed by the White House in using this crisis to push for its long-desired ideological agenda, the Obama Administration has chosen to put decency to the side and is gleefully busy ensuring that it manipulates the concern and fear stemming from the recession to pass its ideological laundry list. Of course, the Administration has every right to fight for its views. But why must it deny the facts of the situation that led to the current economic crisis in doing so?

Such behavior is hardly a model for leadership, but it is redolent in the President’s speeches and in public pronouncements coming from the Administration. A discussion of the economy is all about deficits the President inherited (more on those in a moment), and deregulation that supposedly makes the Obama Administration’s life difficult and free markets that allegedly will lead us into the poor house. We are only a month into the President’s term but already, this tactic is getting tiresome and at some point soon, there ought to be some serious pushback. Barack Obama is not just a candidate for President anymore. He is the President and that means he will have to take responsibility for the State of the Union, rather than just blaming the bad facts of life on his predecessor. If the President does not come to this realization by his lonesome, then he ought to be forced into it. And by all indications from his speech to Congress, he will have to be forced into it.

Despite his promise to stay away from tawdry accounting tricks, tawdry accounting got pride of place in the speech to Congress. The President tells us that his recovery plan “will save or create 3.5 million jobs.” No one has any clue what any of this means, of course, and if one asks the White House, one will get an answer that is as clear as mud. The weakness of the President’s so-called stimulus package is revealed in the manner in which the President is reduced to boasting about it:

Because of this plan, there are teachers who can now keep their jobs and educate our kids. Health care professionals can continue caring for our sick. There are 57 police officers who are still on the streets of Minneapolis tonight because this plan prevented the layoffs their department was about to make.

Feel the prosperity. Apparently, when it came to bragging about the alleged palliative effects of the stimulus package, this was the best the White House could do. Of course, in the event that one remains somewhat skeptical of the economic soundness of the Obama Administration’s approach, the President is quick to remind us that he “asked Vice President Biden to lead a tough, unprecedented oversight effort [to combat wasteful spending], because nobody messes with Joe.” I must have missed it when the Vice President got gravitas, seeing as how every time the Vice President opens his mouth, something bad happens.

The thought that he will now be in charge of keeping the budget in line does not exactly give fiscal hawks the warm fuzzies.

Speaking of which–ah, the budget! The Obama Administration is now issuing jeremiads on a regular basis against the budget deficit it–wait for it–”inherited,” forgetting, however, that the deficit was a little over a mere(!) $400 billion pre-TARP, and that it has now ballooned to over $2 trillion thanks to TARP, and the pork-filled stimulus package, with Son-of-TARP and perhaps more stimulus on the way. The Administration combats this by raising taxes on “the wealthy” but even if “the wealthy” had their income confiscated, it would not put a dent in the deficit. The Administration’s tax scheme is based on class envy–what could be more politically popular than making fat cats pay more taxes, after all?–but it is a fact that the United States “collects the largest share of taxes from the richest 10% of the population.” This is not enough, as far as the Administration is concerned, but just because the Administration is interested in raising more taxes on “the wealthy,” it does not give the Administration the right to claim that there has not been, up until the submission of the Administration’s budget, progressivity in the way in which the federal government collects its taxes.

But when it comes to the Obama Administration, facts give way to class envy and class warfare on a regular basis. And this is not confined to discussions concerning taxes. The President made a great show about ensuring that no more taxpayer money went to fatten CEO paychecks, stating that “CEOs won’t be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks, or buy fancy drapes, or disappear on a private jet. Those days are over.” But those days never mattered at all; CEO paychecks, fancy drapes, and private jets did nothing whatsoever to bring the balance sheets of companies to ruin. Fundamentally bad business decisions that dealt with a lot more money did that. And since when is Washington–that runner-up of $2 trillion deficits–in any position to lecture anyone about fiscal and financial responsibility?

When it comes to energy and environmental policy, the President has made clear his support for “a market-based cap on carbon pollution.” To the extent that this is a cap-and-trade policy it is a bad idea. Cap-and-trade is an utterly regressive system; the cost that comes from plants retrofitting their equipment will be passed on to consumers. Since this is a cost that will be imposed by the private sector, it will be exceedingly difficult–if not outright impossible–to get government to offset the cost through some kind of tax cut that goes to the consumer. A clear flub by the Obama Administration.

While the President was depressingly specific when it came to discussing his energy and environmental policy proposals, he was depressingly vague when it came to discussing his health care proposals. The President was content to issue bromides galore when it came to the shape and structure of health care. Of course, he was handicapped by the fact that he does not, as of yet, have a Health and Human Services Secretary — Tom Daschle’s tax cheatin’ heart saw to that. Nevertheless, few — if any — commentators asked what the President meant when he laid out his generic rhetoric on the issue of health care. One fears that the President held back on specifics because he was afraid of what we might have thought of those specifics.

On education policy, one ought to welcome the President’s commitment to charter schools, but it would be good if he had decided to come out in favor of school choice in DC and nationwide as well. On that issue, alas, we heard nothing. Perhaps at some point in the future, the President will see reason and realize that schools will do better if they are forced to compete with one another across public/private lines. Then again, perhaps the teachers’ unions will seek to ensure that he does no such thing.

Indeed, to the extent that the President seeks to get away from anything resembling conventional Democratic positions, the special interest groups that make up the Democratic Party will work to pull him away from any attempt at apostasy. Barack Obama’s current relatively august standing in American politics notwithstanding, he is a politician with little record, little experience, and perhaps not as much ability as he might wish to have if he wanted to truly transform the nature and character of Democratic party politics.

And of course, hopes that the President will actually try to change the Democratic Party are likely founded in fantasy.

So, the President’s speech to Congress was like his speeches in the past and will be like his speeches in the future. They will consist of “words, words, words” and not much more. Barack Obama is a wonderful orator. He can even sound good when he has nothing special to orate about. And why not? He certainly has had a lot of practice in the past and will continue to perfect his skill at talking beautifully about nothing at all in the years to come.

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