David Coates

The State of the Union Address – Taking the Longer View

It is presumably unreasonable to expect any modern President of the United States to use his best prime-time moment, the annual State of the Union Address, to tell Congress and the American people that on his watch the state of the union is not strong – even if that is the truth. No politician these days gets any traction from the exploitation of bad news, unless he/she is currently out of power and, like the GOP, trying to work their way back in. Democratic Presidents concerned with their legacy are not in that position; which is why all we can legitimately expect of any State of the Union Address these days, particularly one given at the start of a President’s sixth year in office, is some sort of claim for progress in the immediate past, plus an equivalent case for more progress in the year to come.

That, in truth, is most of what we heard from President Obama on Tuesday evening. Fine rhetoric well delivered, mildly progressive goals modestly pursued, and a strong statement of the continuing importance of American exceptionalism and American power. Chris Matthews on MSNBC particularly liked the latter: a Democratic President, rather than a Republican one, for once wrapping his policies in the flag.

But just because a President cannot do a full and honest stock-taking of our overall condition, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t. When currently 63% of us think the country is going in the wrong direction, polling numbers of that scale rather suggest that an honest and full stock-taking is long overdue. We won’t all agree on what is going wrong, but at least there could be gain for all of us in stepping back from the detail of immediate policy disagreements in order to reflect upon a set of longer term issues.

The President touched briefly in his State of the Union Address on four of these issues, each of which is now worth a more considered second look.

  • ·         On Afghanistan he said, “We will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America’s longest war will finally be over”.[1] But will it? As he also made clear on Tuesday night, there is no Pentagon plan to fully pull Americans out of Afghanistan, or to cease a drone war[2] on Islamic militants that, as the President implied, likely creates more militants than it kills.  Our federal deficits run high in large part because of the scale of our military expenditures. We currently spend more on defense than the next 17 nations combined (many of whom are actually our allies) and are responsible for over 40% of global military spending.[3] Moreover, we are currently active in clandestine operations in 134 countries.[4] No wonder there is so much global pushback against our power. Imagine how we would respond if Chinese drones flew over California, or if Russian secret service personnel intervened in our domestic politics with the regularity with which our clandestine forces interfere in the domestic politics of others. This Administration, like every other since FDR, remains committed to a global policing role for the United States. The price of that policing role, in both human and financial terms, is a vast one – the human cost was showcased in the most dramatic way at the end of the SOTU Address. Yet although we spend and suffer so much, and put our military power down in so many places, our security remains in peril. One vital debate, therefore, that we need to have as a nation is whether, after seven decades of such an undertaking, it is now time not simply to bring home the troops but also to bring home the mission.

  • ·         The President dedicated much of Tuesday’s Address to the question of job creation, calling on Congress to “lower tax rates for businesses that create jobs right here at home,” and announcing new initiatives “to make sure that every American has the skills to fill those jobs.” All this is both reasonable and necessary, but there is so much more that also needs to be said and done. The conditions underpinning the job-creation record of the 1990s have entirely gone. There can be no more economic security in a growth model based on inflated stock prices, stagnant wages and rising levels of personal debt. There can be no secure long-term prosperity for all Americans if we continue to tolerate an economy divided between over-mighty finance, outsourced manufacturing employment and the proliferation of low-paid service jobs. Rebalancing our economy, rebuilding a strong manufacturing base, and creating solid middle-class wages again will not come from yet more free trade agreements with low-wage competitors or from simply tinkering with tax incentives on companies diversifying overseas. It will only come – if it will come at all – from an Administration willing and able to develop an industrial policy based on systematic public investment in vital infrastructure, powerful incentives to relocate industries back to the United States, and strong labor laws to ensure that the jobs created by this relocation are genuinely high-paying ones. We need not just more jobs. We need an entirely new growth strategy to get them; and it is on the nature of that growth strategy that public debate now needs to be refocused.[5]

  • ·         On inequality, The President  rightly talked on Tuesday night about the need for “equal pay for equal work” and for an increase in the minimum wage. “Give America a raise” he told Congress, and at the same time reform the all-important Earned Income Tax Credit to do more “for single workers who don’t have kids.” He linked his concern with inequality to the need for new ways to save for old age and to the importance of healthcare reform.  But again there is just so much more to say and to do about the inequality that is now draining the content out of the reality of our union. For more than three decades, politicians and commentators have made a fetish of trickle-down economics and the indulgence of the rich. That fetish has consolidated both an entitlement culture at the top of this society of a kind last seen in the pre-Depression 1920s, and a tolerance of levels of income and wealth inequality that make a mockery of any notion that all Americans “are created equal and are endowed by their makers with inalienable rights.” There are, fortunately, strong voices within the Democratic Party – Elizabeth Warren for one – reminding us that wealth creation is a collective activity; and there are economists – Paul Krugman among others – reminding us that the major barrier to job creation now is not excessive taxation of the rich but inadequate purchasing power among the middle class and the poor. Executive action on the minimum wage is therefore a modest step in the right direction, but we as a nation need more. We need to hear again arguments from the Left that are as strident and self-confident as those now coming from the Tea Party Right – an insistence that the union between us is being so eroded by the greed of the rich that for everyone’s long-term sake we need an immediate effective attack on poverty and low wages.

  • ·         On American exceptionalism, the President said this. “No other country does what we do. On every issue, the world turns to us, not simply because of the size of our economy or our military might but because of the ideals we stand for and the burdens we bear to advance them.” Really? Is that true: no other country, on every issue, the entire world? In many ways, this is the most important conversation that we as Americans need to have with each other. There was a time when America was exceptional in the way the President presented it last night – a beacon of light to those seeking freedom in every other country – though even then it was an exceptionalism that was built partly on slavery and the eradication of native peoples. But America was indeed once “the first new nation,” and immigrants did then come because this country was a land of economic opportunity and political freedom for them and for their children. They came fleeing from a world that generally lacked both economic opportunity and civil rights. But that world has gone. There are now many fully-functioning democracies in the advanced industrial world, and many of those democracies give their citizens an extensive set of democratic and social rights that we simply do not. They don’t battle with voter suppression. They don’t leave a seventh of their populations without healthcare. They don’t let private money buy political influence on the scale now allowed here by Citizens United. They have higher rates of social mobility than we do. To make our union genuinely strong again, we would do well to trumpet our exceptionalism less and to reflect on the exceptionalism of others more – opening our minds again, as our founding fathers did, to lessons gleaned from the best of the rest abroad. We would do well to start telling ourselves, at moments like the State of the Union, that we need to recreate the exceptionalism of which we are so proud – because right now that exceptionalism is more tarnished than Presidents making SOTU Addresses seem able to admit.

The political gridlock in Washington currently constrains us all. It certainly constrains the President, and helps explain the modesty of both the vision and the policy on show in Tuesday’s Address. That political gridlock will not be broken until the Democratic Left debates and agrees a set of progressive solutions to these entrenched and long-standing sources of American economic and social weakness, and then takes those solutions to the American electorate. We need the dialogue. We need the agreement, and we need to build the movement to sustain both. The President has a short-term job to do. The rest of us have a longer-term one to do as well. As we do all that we can to help the President achieve his “year of action” in 2014, we also need to begin thinking and working for a post-Obama politics that is more potently progressive that his, sadly, have managed to be.

[2] David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt, “Afghanistan Exit Is Seen as Peril to C.I.A. Drone Mission,” The New York Times, January 26, 2014, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/27/world/asia/afghanistan-exit-is-seen-as-peril-to-drone-mission.html

[3] Data in David Coates, America in the Shadow of Empires, (forthcoming, 2014)

[4] Nick Turse, “America’s Secret War in 134 Countries,” The Huffington Post January 16, 2014: available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nick-turse/americas-secret-war_b_4609742.html

[5] The argument is developed in David Coates, Making the Progressive Case: Towards a Stronger U.S. Economy. New York: Continuum Books, 2012, available at http://www.amazon.com/Making-Progressive-Case-Towards-Stronger/dp/1441186506

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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.

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