Commentary by James Shott
President Barack Obama gave his eighth and final State of the Union (SOTU) message last Tuesday night, to a mixed set of reviews. Commentators had noted that a president’s last SOTU generally is predictable and boring. Obama’s final flourish was both predictable in its petulance and arrogance, and boring, because most of it has been said before. And often.
Pledging near the beginning that this one would be short perhaps gave false hope. Going back to Lynden Johnson’s presidency from 1963 to 1969, our presidents’ addresses have averaged right at 50 minutes, and Obama’s speeches have averaged 63 minutes. Only in comparison to Bill Clinton’s average of 75 minutes does this one qualify as short, running just under 59 minutes. At 29 minutes, Richard Nixon’s 1972 address holds the record for the shortest.
Perhaps it is due to his 12-year stint as a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School that the address was an hour-long lecture, one part of which dealt with the tone of current political discourse and contained an uncommon admission of failure. “It's one of the few regrets of my presidency – that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” he said. “I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide...” That is no doubt true, as it is a commonly and broadly held opinion that Obama is the most divisive president in recent memory, or perhaps ever, and he has done nothing to calm the raging political waters in seven years.
Complaining that there has been precious little progress in Congress, he noted: “Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise…” But compromise depends upon the details of the issue. Sometimes, compromise is simply not possible if it means one side abandoning fundamental principles. If one party demands the other party sacrifice their right hand, for example, the other party cannot be blamed for refusing to compromise by giving up two or three fingers. This is the nature of the compromise Obama and the Democrats slam Republicans for not indulging in, as they routinely demand things that even acquiescent Republicans cannot accept.
Burnishing his accomplishments, Obama said we have “a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry and booming energy production.” He also said that the U.S. is in the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history. Typically, this is the most non-specific and favorable part of the story, and there is much there deserving of clarification. Many jobs have, indeed, been created and the unemployment rate (U-3) is in good territory, but that is due to millions of Americans having stopped looking for work because they couldn’t find a job in the Obama economy. The Workforce Participation rate is at its lowest point in 35 years.
Wages have stagnated during Obama’s tenure, personal debt has increased by about $1 trillion, and fewer Americans are buying homes. And then there is the national debt, which has increased substantially under Obama. He took office in January of fiscal year 2009, with a national debt of nearly $12 trillion. In fiscal 2015 that figure stood at more than $18 trillion. Fiscal 2016 will end September 30 of this year, and it is likely that by that time the national debt will be $20 trillion.
All the while GDP limps along at rates ranging from a low of minus 2.8 percent in 2009 to 2.4 percent in 2014, never rising above 2.5 percent. GDP finally began approaching respectable levels in 2015, fully six years after Obama took office. Not much to brag about there.
Obama said it is a hallmark of his economy that today more Americans work in the solar industry than in the coal industry. But at what cost? He gave well over a billion dollars of taxpayer money in subsidies to a few solar firms that not long thereafter went bankrupt, and the administration’s harsh and unwarranted attacks on the coal industry put tens of thousands out of work and closed several coal-fired electric generation plants well before natural changes in energy production would have more gradually and less chaotically replaced coal with other methods.
In West Virginia, the loss of income from the Coal Severance Tax and Income Tax collections from out-of-work coal miners and workers in support industries have seriously damaged the state’s economy, and Kentucky and Virginia also have suffered job losses and economic harm, all without a sympathetic tear from the president.
Each year as the State of the Union address grows near there is talk of doing away with it, because it no longer has a valid purpose. “What’s tiresome is the hoopla about a speech that hardly anybody watches, and that, as a general rule, contains nothing new,” stated Yale law professor Stephen Carter. The SOTU originally was intended for the president to report to Congress on the condition of the nation, but also allowed the President to outline his legislative agenda.
Ah, but those were the good old days. More recently it has devolved into a grand political opportunity, as Obama so well demonstrated.
Cross-posted from Observations