Framing Errors in the State of the Union Address
Anyone who watched the televised exchange between the President and Republican lawmakers at their retreat last week – anyone, that is, with an ounce of objectivity in them – would presumably concede that, in a straight-up fight between Barack Obama and the entire Republican leadership, the President would win by a clear knock out. So if that was all you saw last week, you might be forgiven for thinking that the Democrats were on course for more victories in November and to the easy passage of health care and immigration reform.
But you would be wrong.
Obama won the small-staged exchange, but on the big one – in the State of the Union Address that held the attention of vast swathes of middle America last Wednesday evening – he scored a remarkably large number of unnecessary own goals. In politics you win votes by backdoor dealings on legislative detail, but you win hearts and minds by the way you lay the ground for those votes. How you frame the issue, as well as what the issue is, determines the outcome. Framing key issues in the Republican way makes for the appearance of a welcome bipartisanship, but it also does the Republicans’ work for them, robbing bipartisanship of the outcomes that progressives want.
There were three own goals at least on Wednesday night.
Describing his jobs’ initiative, the President said this: “the true engine of job creation in this country will always be America’s businesses, but government can create the conditions necessary for businesses to expand and hire more workers.” That formulation plays straight into the hands of those who argue that it is the private sector alone that creates wealth for ordinary Americans It stacks the gradient against the very argument that he was making – that government has a vital role to play. How many of his listeners, I wonder, realize that in the last business cycle (2001-8) the net gain in jobs created by private companies big and small in America was a resounding zero! Overall job growth in the last cycle came almost entirely from federal and state employment – as public sector jobs. By all means let us help private small companies employ more people and raise wages. Who can be against that? But where was the celebration and defense of the employment by states of the teachers, firefighters, social workers and police officers a troubled society so desperately needs. There was none. With state budgets currently in freefall, that was a truly dreadful omission.
Describing his spending plans, the President said this: “families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same.” With one verbal stroke he threw away the entire Keynesian argument that in times of recession, when private consumption is down, public expenditures should rise. Where was the argument that high public spending now will easily pay for itself – in the form of higher tax revenues on improved wages and consumption – when the economic growth that public spending has stimulated eventually kicks in? It was not there. All we got was a Republican premise – that federal deficits are bad – and the blame game: most of the ‘bad’ deficit was accumulated on Bush’s watch. The blame is correct – it was – but it is also entirely beside the point. We need public spending deficits now, and we will probably need them in the future. We all remember George H. Bush’s “watch my lips, no new taxes” and what that cost him in 1992. Well, what happens in 2011 if unemployment is, as predicated, still well over 6 percent, and we need a fresh stimulus package? Why, in the name of reason, did the President give himself (and us) that hostage to fortune? Shooting your own side in the foot is no substitute for effective progressive leadership.
Of course by 2011 it might well all academic, if this November the Democratic majority in the Senate is slashed and if – as the Republicans gleefully told themselves at their retreat as soon as the President had gone – by then they have also recaptured the House. And they might – particularly if this November, unlike November 2008, the Latino vote either stays home or votes with its feet. It was the Latino vote that tipped the vote in my state towards Kay Hagan and away from Elizabeth Dole; and it did so because candidate Obama promised comprehensive immigration reform. It was the Latino vote that tipped the vote the Democratic way in many key races in 2008. But what did President Obama say on Latino issues in the State of the Union?
Just this, a throwaway line towards the end of the address, taken straight out of the song book of Tom Tancredo and J.P. Hayworth. He said: “we should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system -– to secure our borders and enforce our laws, and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nation.” Private White House briefings suggest a bipartisan push is being quietly orchestrated; but to what end? No Republican candidate in 2010 can sensibly do a John McCain 2006 repeat show. McCain can’t even do it himself, with J.P. Hayworth determined to steal his Senate seat from under him. And even if McCain could, bipartisanship on this issue would not win Latino votes to the Democrats alone: so why bother?
Can someone please wake up the White House? The boss is good, but the message is lousy and the political strategy underpinning it at best naive and at worse ludicrous. Time is running out for the full use of the political space won in 2008. So I say again: use it or lose it. We need not only an articulate President. We need an effective one.
David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.
He writes here in a personal capacity.