The real state of the union is inescapable
The Washington Post, January 29, 2014
Can a president really be a "year of action" hero armed with just his "pen and phone"? Or is that a formula for what I call kinder, gentler decline? Those are the essential questions beneath the pomp and ceremony of the State of the Union. And maybe the paradoxical answer to both questions is "yes."
I'm always torn when watching a State of the Union speech. I agree with the vision of America that Barack Obama laid out. Trouble is, I've agreed with it since I first heard Bill Clinton lay out the same vision when I followed Clinton into the White House as an aide in 1993. Yet in the years since, on virtually every metric progressives care about—save for expanded health coverage, once the dust finally clears from Obamacare—the measures of a good society have gone in the wrong direction.
Wages are stagnant or shrinking. School rankings have sagged. College and health costs have soared. Our rates of child poverty lead the developed world. Decent jobs remain scarce. The accident of birth weighs more heavily in dictating one's destiny.
All the compelling anecdotes or special guests in the chamber don't change that.
When I hear Obama cry that no one who works full time should live in poverty in America, it's like Groundhog day. Can I be alone in this reaction? I want to play the split screen with Bill Clinton saying exactly the same thing. It made sense then. It makes sense now. So how long does a wealthy, sane nation need to fix this? If twenty years isn't good enough—two decades in which the economy nearly doubled in size in real terms—do we need 50 years? 100?
The president faces obvious constraints. But is the illusion of meaningful action really the most effective strategy? I get that the White House wants to signal that it can still "do things." I know the administration wants to use issues like the minimum wage to frame the midterm elections. Maybe their choice is understandable.
And yet the real state of the union seems inescapable. In the face of enormous economic strains on the middle class, Republicans have no ideas, and Democrats have puny "pen and phone" ideas. The result is little progress, paired with a rhetoric-reality gap among Democrats that's rising even faster than our concentration of wealth.
Consider some of the executive actions touted by the White House. The minimum wage measure is a big deal, even if it only applies to new federal contracts (and therefore to only a relative handful of workers). It's an important effort to lay down a marker about a decent minimal reward for work.
But a "summit on working families?" A review of federal job training programs six years into the president's tenure? Asking CEOs to (pretty please) consider hiring the long-term unemployed? "Mobilizing" the private sector to offer more apprenticeships? Passing the tin cup to corporate foundations to help connect schools to the internet?
Look, I'm all for the bully pulpit. And these measures can surely do some modest good at the margins. But it is embarrassing for the leader of a great nation to be peddling these as meaningful "action." Do foreign leaders watching think, "Well, they're gridlocked, but one day they'll get their act together." Or do they think we're institutionally incapable of renewal?
The endless "small ball" accounts for the malaise I felt midway into the speech. Even though the president looked strong and confident—he's always impressive and commanding in these venues—I felt as if America must be tuning out, because it felt like so much of the same old blah blah blah.
Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen, who many Americans have never heard of , will have far more influence on incomes, jobs and economic growth than President Obama in the next three years—and not just here in the U.S., but around the globe as well. There's something surreal about that. Maybe it's time we asked Federal Reserve chairs to give a State of the Union too.