State of the Union: check, and mate

If you’re a Republican, what can you say about he speech except “ouch”?

I thought he knocked it out of the park. [Full text here; wasn’t “Built to Last” a Dead song?] The three people I watched it with, all smarter and wiser than I, thought the same. He managed to be “confrontational” and inclusive at once, making it clear who’s being unreasonable. He did what amounted to a point-by-point takedown of Romney. Reducing the tax question to the Buffet Rule makes an easy sell.

What can the Red Team say in response, except “Ouch!”? American isn’t great? Osama isn’t dead? Vulture capitalists ought to pay lower tax rates than workers?

Even if the Republicans weren’t self-destructing, I’d feel very good about the election after this speech.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

18 thoughts on “State of the Union: check, and mate”

  1. Nothing on foreclosures and cramdowns (doubling down on a great policy failure), and too much protectionist posturing for my taste, but overall pretty good.

  2. I thought he did fairly well. However, it’s worth noting that winning this election won’t swing on persuading republicans over to our side but by preventing democrats from staying home (and by encouraging reps to stay home — but that’s up to their party). This might have energized any dems worried about a republican trounce in November. But for folks who care about good policy there was quite a bit there to give pause.

    Was I having auditory hallucinations or did he really say that if colleges and universities can’t keep their costs down they’ll lose their tax subsidies? Really? Wow.

  3. Talk is cheap. Three. Years. Too. Late. I guess we are now in “Candidate” Obama world instead of “President” Obama world. Oh, joy.

  4. Professor Kleiman: with all due respect, your last sentence makes no sense. Obama is the “owner” of this economy, which is pretty shitty (as you may have noticed). If he wins a second term, he owes all his success to the stupidity of the Republican Party.

  5. Prof Glass:
    I agree with you that Obama owns the economy, and that is the most important single fact about this election. I also agree that the economy is quite shitty (“pretty” shitty is not a phrasing I would adopt.) But I’m not sure what this means. The question, in my mind, is whether the voters care more about the economy or its derivative. It’s too early to say that things are improving, but they may well be improving nicely by the end of summer. I have no idea what voters will do when faced with an economy that is poor but improving. Americans tend to live in the future, and there is a good chance that they will be happy with it. Or not.

    I’m not sure that, if Obama wins, he will owe his success to the stupidity of the Republican Party. I think that the Republican game plan is smart, if not very patriotic: tank the economy and make sure that Obama takes the blame for their actions. Their problems do not reflect on the intellect of their leadership: a hideous and very conspicuous base that demands constant public expressions of fealty; unattractive marquee candidates; and weak party discipline in the House of Representatives. But their leadership is, IMO, quite competent.

  6. All other things being equal, a sitting president will be re-elected in good economic times, and defeated in bad economic times.

    But even a mediocre campaigner can make it such that all things are not equal. Thus we have all the times the opposite happened.

    I actually don’t think Obama is the master campaign strategist people say he is, playing 11-dimensional chess while making his opponents dance like marionettes. He might not win this election. But I certainly give him enough credit to plan a campaign strategy that neutralizes the economic aspect, and I think the, ahem, “class warfare” tack he’s taking is a pretty solid means to that end.

    1. Matt, you had me until the end. I don’t think the partisan class warfare pitch we heard last night plays well except in traditional blue states. But intelligent people can disagree about that.

      My father had almost unerring instincts about politics, even though he was not a political scientist. From very early on, he explained to me his rule of thumb which was when the country is not at war, Americans vote their pocketbooks. In short, incumbents when when things are OK (Ike, Johnson, Nixon (oy), Reagan, Clinton, Bush 43) and lose when they’re not (Ford, Carter, Bush 41). To me, the recent better employment numbers and beige book anecdotal evidence is responsible for the little bump in popularity Obama is enjoying. How ridiculous would the text of that speech have sounded two or three months ago? We should be aware, however, that the “recovery” is not yet clearly sustainable and that the European respite may just be that. In short, if the economy is not still improving by this spring, the speech will sound just incompetent in retrospect.

      As for the GOP’s game plan, I don’t think even Ebenezer believes his own claptrap. No responsible politician of either party wants to see anything but good things happen to this country, but they do have starkly different ideas about how to achieve the country’s goals. I thought in one-fourth the time, Governor Daniels made at least as cogent and convincing argument for his view as the President did. This can only raise the odds for a draft Daniels boomlet if Romney’s campaign can’t soon get control of the nomination.

      1. Redwave 72, I agree entirely on your point about the economy this year and its importance for the election. Quite simply, if the EU melts down and drags the US (and the rest of the world) back into recession, and if unemployment ticks back up above 9%, then the Republican nominee will be our next president. On the other hand, if the US economy slowly but steadily continues to grow, and if job growth averages, say, 200,000 new jobs per month, then Obama will likely be re-elected.

        It may be true that “(n)o responsible politician of either party wants to see anything but good things happen to this country…”, but if that’s the case, then some of the most powerful figures in the Republican Party—including Sen. Minority Leader McConnell—are, by your definition, irresponsible politicians. And that, I think, is one of the major obstacles Obama has faced: an opposition that is willing to inflict pain on the citizenry in order to defeat the president.

      2. Redwave,
        I agree with you that “no responsible politician of either party wants to see anything but good things happen to this country.” Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Republicans are responsible. But to the extent they are responsible, Republicans believe that Obama is a horrible disaster for the country, rather than merely somebody whose policy is suboptimal. (Either that, or their rhetoric is a pack of lies.)

        If somebody believes this, the person might believe that short-term pain is in the long-term interest of the country. After all, if Lincoln was willing to suffer a war to fight the evil of slavery, an anti-abortion activist (say) would certainly be willing to sustain a recession to fight the evil of abortion. This isn’t fanciful: anti-abortion activists love their Dred Scott analogies.

        And of course, somebody would be all the more willing to believe this if it were in their short-term political interests.

  7. Best part?

    When Mr. Obama laid up several brilliant paragraphs to get to this moment: Anybody who says America is finished doesn’t know what they are talking about.
    Wild applause. Except for Boehner in the background.
    He sat on his hands?!?!
    Yep.

    So Mark is correct: Mr. Obama sold his presidency well. And laid down an “Ouch!” that had Republicans fleeing for the toilets in record time.
    My take is that he will be easily reelected. Romney is cooked. And if you don’t believe that, wait until the Romney version of the Edward’s hair video goes viral….

    1. Yep. Obama’s on his way to a very productive second term. Team Obama does not play impossibly prescient “11 level chess,” magically playing all opposition into its Elder of Zion-esque control of the, um, world. However, the Obama political team is (at least) these things:
      Incredibly well organized, state by state. No weaknesses in the ground game, none.
      Committed to a generally populist, equitable vision for this country
      Focused, extremely intelligent, and persistent
      Willing and able to use success of well designed policy as a long term, depth-based strategy for demolishing puerile Republican/Randian ideology
      Good, experienced, and kind of fixated on winning. Which is a good thing.

  8. I thought he had an opportunity to start introducing the concept of a mixed economy into the general vocabulary of politics, and missed that opportunity. For several of the success stories he told, he needed to accompany each with a message that says, “The government played its role, the private markets played their role, and that is what happens when modern economies function at their best.”

    The Reagan meme that government is the problem, that it needs to be gotten out of the way, and that free markets will always get it right when they operate on their own, is still alive and well, and is at the center of Republican ideology across the country. That meme, which has operated unmolested for more than thirty years, is ripe for being questioned; and Pres. Obama could have confronted it without being “confrontational.” That is, he could have invoked memories of how institutions like the interstate highway system were supported by the federal government, and made possible many of the productivity gains that have accrued since the 1950s. He could have made the point that private markets cannot produce enough public goods like these, and that would have been the beginning of a long-overdue take-down of a slogan-based GOP ideology which has retained its seductive powers long after time and reality have withered whatever beauty it once may have had.

    1. Ed Whitney — good point about the mixed economy rhetoric. Really, nothing either party wants to do makes sense without further acknowledgement of the mixed economy fact of life.

      1. I agree, Ed has a good point. There is a set of projects that is appropriate for federal spending and management, in fact no other solution even suggests itself. The highway system was one. Obama hinted at others when he talked about addressing crumbling infrastructure.

        The difference between now and the 1950’s is that we have layered on a set of entitlements (Medicare, Medicaid, PPACA, etc.) that didn’t exist then. When you are $15 trillion under water on a cash basis, and actuarially much worse, it reduces your range of options. When investments like the highway system have a positive yield, we need to do them anyway, and I would put the infrastructure work in that category. Unfortunately, most of what this administration has talked about has a dubious, and more likely, a horribly negative yield, and we are not going to do those. in that class, I put most of the green energy projects the Left accepts on faith. Would you like to see PPACA rescored now, without CLASS and without the assumed reimbursement cuts everyone knew the MD’s would never go for? It would be ghastly negative, and worse the further out you go. It should be repealed.

        Conservatives are not being mean spirited or obstructionist to be concerned that we are indeed going down the same path as Europe. The Left should be concerned too that we will in fact face the same threats to our economy and entitlement structure as the Euro’s are looking at.

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