Last night in his State of the Union address, President Obama revealed his fundamental approach to governing: centrist in orientation, pragmatic in his approach to the relationship between capitalism and the state, mindful of the long term need to address the problem of spending deficits, yet, still committed to social justice – “But let’s make sure that we’re not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.” (link) As I have put it before, a centrist committed to transforming the center.
The speech was finely written and delivered, tactically and strategically formed to appear post partisan, while putting his Republican opposition on the defensive. As I understand his project, it was a continuation of the course he set during his campaign and has been following during his Presidency, despite the fact that many observers claim that he is now shifting to the center (if they like what has happened recently) or to the right (those on the left who see betrayal).
The contrast with the Republican response, delivered by Paul Ryan, could not have been greater. He spoke in an empty House Budget Committee meeting room bereft of notables and dignitaries, without ceremony. But he forcefully argued for significant budget cuts and warned of an impending crisis, being pretty effective under difficult conditions.
“We are at a moment, where if government’s growth is left unchecked and unchallenged, America’s best century will be considered our past century. This is a future in which we will transform our social safety net into a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency… Speaking candidly, as one citizen to another: We still have time… but not much time.”
His central principled position which he developed extensively:
“We believe, as our founders did, that the pursuit of happiness depends on individual liberty, and individual liberty requires limited government.” (link)
The virtue of limited government and a balanced budget through cuts in government programs was his major theme.
And then there was the weirdest speech of the evening. Michele Bachmann’s Tea Party Response. Looking in the wrong direction, spouting questionable statistics and referring to misleading charts, blaming President Obama for all the country’s woes, with odd associational declarations –
“The President could also turn back some of the 132 regulations put in place in the last two years, many of which will cost our economy $100 million or more.”
Is it that each cost $100 million or more?
“For two years President Obama made promises just like the ones we heard him make tonight. Yet still we have high unemployment, devalued housing prices and the cost of gasoline is skyrocketing.”
The cost of gasoline?
“Last November you went to the polls and voted out big-spending politicians and you put in their place men and women with a commitment to follow the Constitution and cut the size of government.”
Commitment to the constitution equals cutting the size of government? What would Hamilton say about that, or for that matter Lincoln?
The End of Ideology?
Obama gave a civil speech about the problems of the day, reaching out to all people of good to come to the aid of their country (not their party), promising to use the government to improve education, invest in infrastructure, justly solve the problem of immigration, and facilitate entrepreneurship.
Bachmann’s speech provided comic relief, but certainly must have annoyed committed Republicans.
Ryan’s for me was most interesting. Striking was how much of what he had to say was a matter of deduction, stating truths about history, and deducing from these truths proper public policy. Happiness is a function of individual liberty, which requires limited government, which means that there must be the cutting of government programs (and by the way also, but not mentioned, the cutting of taxes). And he is absolutely certain that the government cannot positively act to create economic innovation and development. Or as he put it, “Depending on bureaucracy to foster innovation, competitiveness and wise consumer choices has never worked, and it won’t work now.”
Certainly not bureaucracy (never a good thing), but what about the precedents that the President referred to in his speech? As he argued for investments in education, infrastructure and renewable energy, he remembered past great achievements that involved government support.
“America is the nation that built the transcontinental railroad, brought electricity to rural communities, constructed the Interstate Highway System. The jobs created by these projects didn’t just come from laying down track or pavement. They came from businesses that opened near a town’s new train station or the new off-ramp.”
And these businesses were encouraged by government supports, supports that started in the first years of the Republic and have continued ever since.
Ryan could overlook this because his ideological deduction demanded it. The private sector, good; the public sector bad. Then and only then can one absolutely know that public investments in education, transportation, communications and much more never work.
Free market ideology drives Ryan’s and his fellow Republicans’ position. The persuasiveness of Obama’s address was not only because his authoritative position and the glamor of its setting. It was rich in substance and nuance, while Ryan, along with Bachmann, presented political clichés.
It was reported in yesterday’s New York Times that Daniel Bell, the great sociologist and public figure, died after a long fruitful life. One of his great books is The End of Ideology. I think that yesterday I had a glimpse of ideology’s newest ending.