Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

25 January 2011

State of the Union

Once again, the President rose to the occasion. Once again, he shone as the adult in the room. Once again, he displayed native elegance and grace, lauding John Boehner for rising from sweeping the floor of his father’s bar to running the House of Representatives.

But this time was a bit different. This time, the President recalled his 2004 keynote speech that put him on the road to the White House. This time, with a salute to the empty chair of Gabby Giffords, he emphasized working together from the very beginning. This time, he re-established his centrist credentials by moving decisively to the center, focusing first and foremost on business and jobs. This time, the language of business—“jobs,” “exports,” “trade,” “innovation, and ”deficits“—was foremost in his lexicon.

It was a fine speech by a master politician, comfortable in his skin and his element, confident of his ability, and cognizant of prevailing political realities and of his place in history. Despite his unusual hue—which is now only background noise for all but the most rabid Americans—there was not the slightest question of who in that room was in charge.

And yet, and yet. When the President got to the obligatory punch line, “the state of the Union is strong,” I just didn’t believe him.

That was not his fault, of course. If all he had proposed in his speech actually comes to pass, we might become strong again, perhaps even in the not too distant future. His was a good plan, well considered and practical. It combined the best ideas of left and right with a humble and manly pledge to consider more.

But there, sitting behind him and to his right, was John Boehner. You had to wonder what was passing through his mind, as he frowned, got misty eyed, and squirmed and wriggled like a restless schoolchild in the seat he doesn’t deserve. You had to wonder if he forgot, if only for a moment, his solemn pledge to make the President’s dis-election his life’s sole cause. You had to wonder whether his first real act as Majority Leader—a futile symbolic attempt to repeal last year’s health care legislation—made him proud. You had to wonder if he understands any idea besides negating and obstructing others’. As I watched him and recalled his record, it suddenly hit me that, had he been my father, I would have run away from home as soon as I could walk.

The President’s erstwhile supporters have been so unfair to him. They expect him to make miracles. But there, in that single chamber filled with all the ambulatory members of Congress, was evidence why no miracles will come. There, prominent and up front, was Jon Kyl of Arizona, our champion and crusader for an instant replay of the Cold War. He didn’t even have the decency to nod or smile when the President cited the New Start Treaty’s approval. There was Mitch McConnell, no doubt recalling his own pledge to dis-elect the President as his highest goal, and no doubt seeing the likelihood of that happening recede by the minute.

It’s not the President that troubles me. It’s the rest of the sorry crew. As the camera panned around the room, I was looking at a gerontocracy. There were a bunch of tired, old, grey men and women, exhausted by futile and useless struggles and looking forward to more of the same. Almost to a man or woman, they seemed worn out, drained of life and energy. Several appeared to be sleeping in their seats. Few even listened to the President. The only life they seemed to show was after the speech, when the young ones asked the President to autograph their programs for their children.

But why should these lifeless specters listen? They have little hope of doing anything significant with the power they’ve been given. They all have their own agendas, their own playbooks. What’s most important to them is where their next campaign contribution is coming from and how they can take advantage of the next news inanity to make frat-boy points at their opponents’ expense. They are political automatons, going through the motions of governing without result or effect. If the President is the only one interested in governing a nation effectively—and so it seemed—not much will get done.

I liked a lot of the substance of the President’s speech. I liked his pledge to drop the tax cuts for the rich as soon as they have served their temporary purpose as economic stimuli. I liked his emphasis on energy, the issue most likely to bring us down in the nearest future. I liked his explaining the real and current benefits of his health-insurance reform and the fact that domestic discretionary spending is only 12% of our budget, so cutting it cannot eliminate our deficits. I liked his proposal to reform Social Security without cutting benefits for current or future retirees. I liked his salute to gays’ honest service in our armed forces, and his coupling that salute with an invitation to our forces to recruit on campus again.

Most of all, I liked his specific proposals on energy: to help put a million electric cars on the road by 2015 and make 80% of our electric power from alternative sources by 2035. But even if those things come to pass, they don’t mean much. By 2015, gasoline will probably be selling for $5 or $6 a gallon, so that the per-mile cost of electric driving will undercut the cost of gas by eight to ten times. All who drive a lot will want electric vehicles, especially if they come down in price with greater production experience. As for electric-power alternatives to dirty coal, if we don’t have them in abundance in twenty-four years, the runaway freaks of weather that are accelerating even now may make driving, growing crops and even living difficult under any circumstances.

I’d like to think that the recent election infused Congress with vital new blood. But I know that’s not true. The young ones are mostly misguided missionaries, full of ideological zeal and unprepared for their insignificance in an institution that values seniority above sense. They’ve been elected by idiots who haven’t the faintest idea what their real interests are and what is coming down the pike if we Americans don’t get our act together pronto.

Maybe John Boehner will finally internalize the great responsibility that now rests on his shoulders and rise to the occasion. Maybe he will dimly perceive his own decisive role in making or breaking our country. Maybe he and Mitch will now understand that their goal of a one-term Obama presidency is drifting out of reach, and that they ought to think about repairing a country in rapid decline. Maybe lightning will strike and galvanize the geezers I saw slumbering in our “chamber of the people.”

But do I believe that all this will actually come to pass? Honestly, no. People who’ve settled for years in a comfortable rut of negation and obstruction are unlikely to rise from it. Their continuance in the illusion of power, not to mention their money and propaganda machines, depends on their staying there. If they rise, it would be nice. But I’m not going to sit on the edge of my seat or hold my breath waiting for it to happen.

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  • At Tue Feb 01, 05:57:00 PM EST, Blogger julies whimsies on a rose said…

    Very good, thoughtful post. Nice blog!

  • At Sat Feb 05, 10:38:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hi Jay -- another great post. It occurs to me that what we are witnessing is the end of the period where the US is not bound to the "rules" of history and reality. Post WWII, we were so powerful that we could do almost anything and not suffer any (immediate) consequences. Thus, we could run up ridiculous deficits while cutting taxes again and again, wage wars across the world, neglect our infrastructure, etc., etc. We have eaten our seed corn and now face a bare cupboard. Meanwhile, since we suffered no perceived consequences for our immature behavior, our culture and our politics became more and more divorced from reality. We are a desperately unhappy people that refuses - or is unable - to recognize the real source of our unhappiness. Reality is crashing back on us with full force but we no longer have the capacity to respond in any meaningful way. Instead we look for scapegoats and retreat into our cocoons hoping for the best, but doing nothing that would prevent the worst. Like you I am acutely aware of the political realities in which President Obama operates (I'm actually part of the "professional left" in DC -- we live in the age of Louis XVI here) and know the limits of what is possible. At this point, those boundaries are very narrowly circumscribed. I hoped that the election of Obama was a sign that we had woken up from the delirium in which we have lived, at least since the election of Reagan (oh the irony of the msm orgy of centennial celebrations over the Great Communicator that are happening as what he helped wrought are bearing such poisonous fruit). Alas, that was not to be. I fear that only catastrophe will rouse us, and by then, it may be too late. My pessimism grows every day....

    All we can do is surrender or fight ... I choose to fight, but I fear it is futile. The foxes own the hen house, have eaten all the hens, and now want to tear down the house.

    Best to you. Doug

  • At Tue Feb 08, 09:39:00 PM EST, Blogger jay said…

    Sorry for the late posting of these two comments. You've both probably stopped checking by now. My excuse is that I've been traveling and haven't had much more to say. So I've neglected this blog.

    Being in other parts of the world and meeting many foreigners has given me an interesting perspective. Three things stand out strongly and repeatedly: (1) others don't expect nearly as much from their governments as we do from ours, but often others get more (as in health care); (2) no one abroad seems to expect politicians to be honest or competent, let alone public spirited; and (3) most foreigners I've met like Obama from afar but don't expect him to be re-elected. I hope they're wrong on all three counts.

    As Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government, except for the alternatives. Here's hoping Egyptians get a chance to find that out.

    As for you, Doug, I enjoyed your comment, especially the part about Louis XIV. But I see two differences between pre-Revolutionary France and us today. First, the French peasantry was much smarter than our Tea Mob. French peasants understood where their real interests lay; our equivalents have been bamboozled into thinking they are somehow part of the aristocracy.

    Second, our fourth revolution (if you count the Civil War and the labor movement) needn't be as bloody as the French one. All we need is to send Rupert back to Australia or get our peasant equivalents to wise up. Neither of those expedients is utterly beyond probability. I still think there are a whole lot of people---today's "silent majority"---who recognize Obama as the best available alternative today and just keep silent about it. Many of them voted Republican in November to express their general dissent and give the President a kick in the pants. But they may gravitate back to him now that, unlike his predecessor, he has moved demonstrably toward the center.

    Anyway, Doug, keep up the good fight. It's nice to know there is still a professional left in America. At least we don't have gulags, yet.


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