A Further Perspective

The Real State of the Union

It's probably as bad as Obama's speech.

By 1.27.11

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Even President Obama's own cheering squad thinks he flubbed the State of the Union speech, which they find all the more amazing after his performance in Arizona. The country faces a single serious problem (and many lesser ones, of course), but the president failed to address it seriously.

Barack Obama's State of the Union address had some of the familiar features: the emphasized antithesis: "What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow."

And the ritual dishonesties: "Thanks to the tax cuts we passed." What do you mean "we," Kemosabe? "And these steps, taken by Democrats and Republicans . . ." Yes, but how many Democrats had to hit their drug of choice before voting to maintain the Bush tax cuts?

There was the ridiculous simile about the airplane without an engine: "Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may make you feel like you're flying high at first, but it won't take long before you feel the impact."

Similes have to work to be effective. How do you "feel like you're flying high at first" in an airplane that has no engine? How did it take off? Was it launched from the White House lawn with a giant rubber band made from domestically grown rubber trees stretched by ten thousand illegal but unionized immigrants who went to the D.C. public schools that President and Mrs. Obama won't send their own children to?

Then there was the nod to the stimulus: "So over the last two years, we've begun rebuilding for the 21st century, a project that has meant thousands of good jobs for the hard-hit construction industry." Except that even the president has confessed that the shovel-ready jobs were an illusion.

But there was more wrong with the speech than the president's rhetorical clumsiness and dishonesty. There are substantive issues that should trouble us. The president said: "[Students] come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense."

The president may be right about that, but not for reasons he would give. He was linking foreign students, here on F-1 and M-1 visas, with the children of illegal immigrants. He was stealing a base in order to promote amnesty.

The real question is, Why do we have a student-visa program? Foreign students receive a high percentage of the doctorates awarded every year in the physical sciences and in engineering, and we should ask what the U.S. gets out of it. According to George J. Borjas, the Robert W. Scrivner Professor of Economics and Social Policy at the Kennedy School of Government, a large percentage of all permanent-residence visas granted to foreign students "have nothing to do with ‘exceptional skills' or ‘high job demand,' but are granted because of family connections."

So the real question is not, why do we send them home, but why do we let them come in the first place, if it's not the best ones that stay?

On foreign trade, the president said, "To help businesses sell more products abroad, we set a goal of doubling our exports by 2014 -- because the more we export, the more jobs we create here at home." True, but then he said, "Now, before I took office, I made it clear that we would enforce our trade agreements, and that I would only sign deals that keep faith with American workers and promote American jobs."

What he is really saying is that we will limit imports that threaten American jobs -- what else could "keep faith with American workers" mean? The problem is that exports are related to imports. In Econ 101 you study charts that show imports and exports moving up and down together. It's not difficult to understand why: the majority of U.S. imports are used by domestic firms as intermediate goods in their production, some of which is then exported. Cut off imports, and you cut off exports.

Here's a doozie: "We are living with a legacy of deficit spending that began almost a decade ago. And in the wake of the financial crisis, some of that was necessary to keep credit flowing, save jobs, and put money in people's pockets."

To say that only "some of that was necessary" is an obvious slap at President Bush for having gotten the country engaged in the Iraq war -- the bad war, as opposed to Obama's good war in Afghanistan.

There are two problems. First, the numbers don't support Obama's claim. From 2003 through 2008, the Iraq War cost $554 billion (by comparison, federal spending on education during that same time was $574 billion). The deficit for the period 2003 through 2010 was about $4.3 trillion.

Second, President Obama himself took credit for a successful conclusion to the war in Iraq later in his speech:


American leadership has been renewed and America's standing has been restored. Look to Iraq, where nearly 100,000 of our brave men and women have left with their heads held high. American combat patrols have ended, violence is down, and a new government has been formed. This year, our civilians will forge a lasting partnership with the Iraqi people, while we finish the job of bringing our troops out of Iraq. America's commitment has been kept. The Iraq war is coming to an end.

So: he blames Bush for getting us into the war and racking up huge deficits, and then takes credit for winning it. Some people thought you had to go to Harvard Business School to learn how to diss your predecessor.

Finally, talking about the deficit commission, he said: "And [the] conclusion [of the bipartisan fiscal commission] is that the only way to tackle our deficit is to cut excessive spending wherever we find it . . ." This is more difficult and, alas, way above the pay grade of this president, which is why even his supporters have complained about his speech. We can never, never cut the deficit (by which is meant cutting it substantially, perhaps even balancing the budget) by cutting only "excessive" spending, for two reasons. First, we will never all be able to agree what's excessive. And second, to balance the budget we may have to cut expenses that we all agree are important.

Johnny needs braces on his teeth. He really does. Unfortunately, in the real world, we have to buy food and homeowner's insurance first.

To some extent, the president may be the victim of his own success. His address in Tucson was widely acclaimed. He was said to have had perfect pitch.

It was never true. He received the accolades only because until then he had been so bitingly partisan, and because being so bitingly partisan was precisely what he had advertised himself during his 2008 campaign as not being.

For one brief -- shining? -- moment he stopped. He went to a funeral. He didn't bash his opponents. People said he was terrific. He may even have believed it.

But it wasn't true.

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About the Author

Daniel Oliver is a Senior Director of White House Writers Group in Washington, D.C. He served as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Ronald Reagan.