The Obama Watch

All the President’s Props

The State of the Union address, one week later.

By 1.31.12

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Last week's State of the Union address was a sad and pathetic affair, full of transparent rhetoric and demagoguery, brimming with incandescent hypocrisies, variegated with an expansive assortment of half-truths and lies, palled by a mediocrity that almost seemed intentional, detached from reality like an unmoored hot-air balloon that slowly ascends to the heavens, stuffed with dense and infuriating arrogance, and draped over our nation like a several-sizes-too-small coat with promises and ideas rendered diminutive in the shadow of the historical moment.

All this was clear last Tuesday night. And yet somehow over the past week, the address actually grew worse.

The president's speech was less a factual information session about the current American condition than it was a mawkish parade of political images and symbols, meant to make us identify with the president's vision and feel at safe harbor with his leadership. It was less a speech than a play, lavish with props and masquerading actors tasked with immersing the audience in an alternate version of reality. But over the past week, key scenes of the drama have fallen apart. The president now looks less like a seasoned political actor than like Quince at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, farcically fumbling his lines.

One of the supporting thespians was the Indiana-based electric car battery-maker Ener1, whose subsidiary EnerDel received a $118.5 million grant under the stimulus bill. EnerDel was also showered with more than $4 million in federal gifts under the Bush Administration. The scrappy little green boutique was meant to symbolize the flowering benefits of the sort of business-government handshaking that the rest of the civilized world calls "crony capitalism." "In three years, our partnership with the private sector has already positioned America to be the world's leading manufacturer of high-tech batteries," Obama declared last Tuesday.

Precisely two days later, Ener1 filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The company had been an encore actor in the president's campaign theatrics. Almost one year ago, Vice President Joe Biden visited the Ener1 facilities, effervescent about the administration's promise to airlift 1 million electric cars onto the road by 2015. That pledge has since crashed on the shoals of reality and the cardboard prop that is Ener1 has blown over.

Watching Ener1 fold, it's hard not to recall that last great monument to the progress of the green revolution: Solyndra. President Obama lauded that company in his 2010 State of the Union and it promptly imploded last year. One imagines executives at Pepsi placing urgent phone calls to the White House, encouraging the president to mention Coca-Cola in next year's address. If you're employed by a business receiving checks from the Department of Energy, you may want to dash off a few copies of your résumé this afternoon.

But the star of the State of the Union show, the leading lady, was Warren Buffett's Secretary. "Right now, Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary," Obama declared. "Do we want to keep these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans? Or do we want to keep our investments in everything else -- like education and medical research; a strong military and care for our veterans?" So central was Warren Buffett's Secretary to the performance, she attended as the special guest of the president and belle of the ball, standing in the audience as a quiet testament to the grinding, Dickensian class divide that darkens the backstreets and alleys of modern America.

Warren Buffett's Secretary was played by Debbie Bosanek, who is Warren Buffett's actual secretary, and who makes between $200,000 and $500,000 per year, according to the calculations of Paul Roderick Gregory over at Forbes. It was a brilliant dramatic portrayal. While Bosanek herself is a creature of the upper classes, she effortlessly slipped into the part of Warren Buffett's Secretary, a downtrodden proletarian exploited by the tax code, reminiscent of Peggy Olson in Mad Men.

This, by the way, presents a knotty conundrum for progressives. If Gregory's deductions are correct, then Bosanek is likely a member of that charter club known as the "wealthiest 2%," a coven of blackhearted plunderers and blue-blooded aristocrats that looted the country for all it was worth in 2008. Progressives have demanded higher taxes on the wealthiest 2%, yet hailed Bosanek as an overtaxed hero. They've blamed the wealthiest 2% for all the nation's ills, but hoisted up this secretary as an emblem of justice in the class wars. Well, which is it? Should we add her image to the Two Minutes Hate tape, or no? And should we raise her taxes? Lower them? Maybe we should just raise everyone's taxes.

The overarching themes pervading the president's State of the Union drama were America's greatness and stifling inequality. America was great when it allowed for the president's accomplishments, like killing Osama bin Laden. But when it came to the president's failures, most notably three years of a doldrums job market, it was all the fault of that yawning canyon of economic class. Wealthy Americans -- for whom Debbie Bosanek's membership application is still pending -- were cast as the villains, cackling all the way to their banks with insufficiently punitive Treasury receipts.

The only solution was to sock it to them, specifically with a 30% net tax on millionaires. This (along with solar batteries) was the Big Idea, the great glowing light bulb of the president's address. And according to an analysis by the Fiscal Times, it would raise $30 billion in revenue -- and that's assuming that the sledgehammer of adding yet another tax didn't further stall the economy. Of course, $30 billion isn't immaterial, but the Tea Party Caucus could cut that much from the federal budget during a bad hangover. Meanwhile, the national debt is $15.2 trillion.

And Democrats have already booby-trapped the tax code for the wealthiest Americans. With current tax rates set to expire at the beginning of 2013, taxes on capital gains will shoot up from 15% to 20%. And thanks to a pernicious little slice of the Obamacare legislation, taxes on capital gains will further increase to almost 24% in 2013. All this will happen unless the federal government takes action to prevent it. It's piquantly fitting, isn't it? If the president wants to see tax rates tighten for millionaires, his easiest course is simply to get reelected.

But I regret that I've disposed of two paragraphs trying to refute the president's numbers when the numbers are nugatory here. Obama is fully aware that his tax increase would do little to arrest the deficit and less to catalyze the economy. His purpose is to blacken the wealthy into villains and portray himself as the eminently reasonable hero; to siphon all the laws and details of politics and economics into a simple, dramatic dichotomy and cast himself on the side of good. He is, with total self-awareness, jousting with phantoms and trying to bring the rest of us along for the ride. It may make for a spectacular show, but at the end of the day, that's all it is: cheap lines and theatrics cluttering the stage floor.

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About the Author

Matt Thomas is the pen-name of a Washington writer.