Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

2011 State of the Union recap

President Obama's State of the Union address tonight was reminiscent of a similar speech given by Governor Gregoire on the second day of the legislative session. The commonality between the speeches: the use of right-wing frames and talking points to discuss policy issues in ways that would make Republican pollster and wordsmith Frank Luntz proud.

The casual viewer surely heard the typical aspirational language and platitudes of this yearly address and may not have noticed the conservative rhetoric, however, with the demographic change in Congress, it is clear that President Obama is getting in touch with his biconceptual side. His efforts to reach out to Republicans in the name of bipartisanship have failed in the past, leading to bad public policy such as the continuing welfare program for millionaires known as the Bush tax cuts.

Let's examine the President's words to get a glimpse of where the policy discussions are headed. Below are excerpts from the President's speech, as prepared for delivery.
Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation.
This right-wing frame follows from the GOP talking point that government is the problem, and the free market, or business, is the solution. However, what truly drives innovation is the investment made in public institutions of higher learning for research and development. Making college education affordable for all students via financial aid and funding higher education infrastructure (teachers and facilities) is what leads to innovation and new businesses.
But now that the worst of the recession is over, we have to confront the fact that our government spends more than it takes in. That is not sustainable. Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same.
How many conservative politicians or talking heads have your heard use this most famous of talking points? All that's missing from this right wing meme parroted by President Obama is that we need to "tighten our belts."
So tonight, I am proposing that starting this year, we freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years. This would reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade, and will bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president.
Ahh, government spending. It's the evil most detested by Republicans, except when the money is going to defense contractors and investment bankers.
Still, I'm willing to look at other ideas to bring down costs, including one that Republicans suggested last year: medical malpractice reform to rein in frivolous lawsuits.
If not for omitting the words "greedy trial lawyers" President Obama would have nailed this Republican meme that health care costs are high because of the damages that patients receive when they successfully sue a provider for malpractice. Though the Supreme Court has the words "Equal Justice Under Law" on its face, it's surprising that an attorney like President Obama would join Republicans in limiting access to the courts.
We shouldn't just give our people a government that's more affordable. We should give them a government that's more competent and efficient.
Here President Obama reinforces the Republican mantra that government is an incompetent, inefficient money pit. I can't tell you how much it means to me when political leaders demean the job that I and my fellow government workers do every day, despite the view of some that all we do is sit at our desks, eat donuts and collect a paycheck (and we don't even do that competently).
There are twelve different agencies that deal with exports. There are at least five different entities that deal with housing policy. Then there's my favorite example: the Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in when they're in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked.
And here the President continues on his tirade against government. Are there efficiencies and improvements that can be implemented in government? Of course there are. But to characterize government in these terms, as a bloated bureaucracy, and then to make a joke about it with regard to smoked salmon, makes me question why Mr. Obama wants to lead the government that he claims is so terrible.
And because the American people deserve to know that special interests aren't larding up legislation with pet projects, both parties in Congress should know this: if a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it.
The Brookings Institution, the venerable public policy think tank, informs us that less than 1% of the federal budget is earmarks, yet President Obama seizes on a top GOP priority.
But dramatic calls for an abolition of earmarks, by law or presidential veto, are futile and counterproductive. Congress has the constitutional power of the purse and legitimately defends its authority to allocate public resources.


Earmarks constitute less than 1 percent of the federal budget. In most cases, they don’t add to federal expenditures but merely allow Congress to direct a small fraction of program funding that would otherwise be allocated by formula or grant competition. Abolishing all earmarks would therefore have a trivial effect on the level of spending and budget deficits. While earmark reform and reduction is a worthy cause, it is a relatively minor one. It would do nothing to slow the rate of federal spending or improve our long-term budget outlook.
In other words, the GOP has a policy priority that won't do anything and the Democratic President just signed on to it. Why?
A 21st century government that's open and competent. A government that lives within its means.
Here the President revisits the Republican refrain of open government and government that is competent (as opposed to the current incompetent government?). Live within its means? Is this the State of the Union or am I listening to talk radio? It's hard to tell.
And with that change, I call on all of our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and the ROTC.
Finally, as the speech came to an end, the President embraced one final item on the Republican policy agenda.

On the whole, the speech was not the solid vision for how we go forward that Congressional Democrats have said it was. Nor was it the doomsday scenario that conservatives and tea party activists will make it out to be. It certainly was not the lofty rhetoric, that inspires us to reach to new heights, that President Obama has used in the past. All in all, it was a mixed bag, but clearly we are disappointed that the President reinforced conservative viewpoints.


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