Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Et Tu, SOTU?

Not quite a year ago, Obama delivered his first address to a joint session of Congress. It was technically too early in his tenure to count as a "State of the Union" address, but it was effectively that. We still had not come down off the high of his electoral victory yet, and Obama's 2/25/09 speech was aimed to keep that exicitement alive in the face of an increasingly bleak picture of the situation he was inheriting. Obama did not shy away from painting the full darkness of that bleak picture for his audience, gently chastising us for allowing "critical debates and difficult decisions to be put off for some other time on some other day." Then, he said:

Well that day of reckoning has arrived, and it's time to take charge of our future.

That was a year ago, and it seems as if too many days of reckoning have come and gone in the interim. The economy is no better, health care reform has yet to be realized, Gitmo soldiers on, there is no end in sight to our war-involvement, accountability and responsibility are inconvenient afterthoughts-- and that's not even to mention the education and clean energy visions that still remain the stuff of dreams. Of course, Obama could never have, and still cannot, do it alone. Too many of his supporters checked-out after casting their votes for him. But we still need a change we can believe in.

Jonathan Cohn over at The New Republic writes that Obama needs to give "the speech of his life... again" tonight. I agree. But what worries me, more than a little, is that a year from now I will look back on this State of the Union with the same muted frustration. Like Cornel West, I desparately hope that Obama does not use his platform tonight to concede, to "cut deals," to recoil. Here's what I want to hear him say:

1. We haven't accomplished what I wanted to accomplish in my first year, and I am partially responsible for those failures. I'm not giving up. I need your help.

2. To the Congressmen and -women in the room, you are failing your constituents on health care reform. To the American men and women watching at home, you must hold them responsible for their failure. A public option is the only way to stop the hemorrhaging.

3. I compromised the moral integrity of this nation by not closing Guantanamo Bay, by suppressing the evidence of the previous administration's war crimes, by not taking a lead role in the promotion of fair trials for detainees, and by re-engaging us in wars for which we do not have clear exit strategies. I am committed to human rights and the rule of law. I will not slough off my responsibility for seeing those principles promoted and protected on my watch.

4. My love for poor and working people is deep. Deeper than my love for banks, corporations, or politicians.

5. Bipartisanship is a means to an end, not an end-in-itself. On some issues, one side or the other of the Aisle is wrong. I will not be afraid of a fight, and I will not govern for the sake of poll numbers.

I hope that President Obama says these things, and then makes good on them. Otherwise, I fear, tonight will be merely another "speech of his life." Et tu, SOTU?


Scu said...

I don't have high hopes for the SOTU to affirm what I think needs to be affirmed. Oh well, sometimes good politics can create good policies. But not too hopeful on that front, either.

I also want to say that generally Obama has been exactly the president I expected him to be. Which is, exactly the president he has promised to be. Which isn't that I always agree with him, far from it.
However, on one issue he has failed to ever live up to his promises, and that is clearly on the issues of civil liberties. He has failed on this very important promise. Again and again.

I do have a question, though. It seems you want Obama to double down on public option. I'd like a public option. It's good policy. But it often strikes me that people on the left feel the public option is more than just a good policy, but the essential element of health care reform. I've never figured out why, why this one element has become so fetishized. Can you explain why?
Why is it so important for you?

anotherpanacea said...

I agree with Scu here: I've not been surprised at all by Obama's priorities or performance. Disappointed, at times, but not surprised. In hindsight, I wish he'd gotten more mileage out of Rahm's reputation for parliamentary mastery, but he did what I wanted him to do (look to Congress rather than writing the bill himself) even when what I wanted him to do was wrong. Also, the public option is a red herring. The poor and working class would be much better off simply by federalizing and extending Medicaid.

As for expectations? I expect he'll spend most of the SOTU laying out potential policies for Congress to take up and enact in the new year. I expect a lot of small sops to the middle class, especially job creation things. Construction projects, that sort of thing. For that reason, I think it would be a mistake (and uncharacteristic) of him to spend a lot of time berating banks. The SOTU is not the time to pass the buck, even if the buck does stop elsewhere.

These are all predictive claims, however. Normatively, what I'd like to see is something like Peter Levine's essay here:

Basically, you can't restore government's role until you've first restored our trust in government. We'll trust government more when we become more involved in its workings rather than in the elections that disguise its workings: that'll be when we can see that it is responsive, accountable, and just. As many others have said, Obama's just a guy with a job: WE'RE the change we've been waiting for.

Scu said...

Well, it's over. Thoughts?

It wasn't what I wanted, of course. But it was more than I expected. Less leadership on healthcare than I wanted, that made me sad. But a lot of house props, so maybe it is the right words for them to just pass the senate bill.

B Blake said...

Here's a link to the Q&A session Obama had with House Republicans today.

Interestingly, while he didn't explicitly come out and say bipartisanship is a means to an end not an end in itself (#5) during the State of the Union, at one point in the Q&A he did put the matter almost exactly that way.

I'm pretty unhappy with the prospect of effective and comprehensive health care reform at this point too, but I'd agree with both Scu and anotherpanacea that the public option is largely a red herring. I'd rather have it, then not have it--but it isn't an essential piece of the the same way that expanding/subsidizing coverage to americans w/o health insurance, eliminating discriminatory insurance policies that hurt many of those people who end up needing health insurance most, and funding further "pilot programs" across the nation to help figure out how to control costs strike me as essential.