When The Wall Street Journal and others headline coverage of the president's State of the Union speech Tuesday night with "Obama Gears Up for Global Challenge" and the like, they are referencing a speech dominated by emphasis on the global economic challenge. Here's the problem with that: In the United States (and any other prosperous part of the world) it is private sector industries and small businesses that meet that challenge, not government.
In an hour-plus long speech overwhelmingly devoted to the state of the U.S. economy, President Barack Obama was long on government solutions to what the private sector does best, and short on answers-or seeming interest-in problems fully within Washington's portfolio.
As with other State of the Union addresses, the president deflected attention from this logic gap with emotive interludes. I never guessed, reading the text of the speech beforehand, that Obama could seriously turn "we do big things" into a successful tagline. Or bring the entire chamber to its feet by recounting the humble beginnings of Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker John Boehner. But he did.
Yet beneath the "we are part of the American family" theme lurked plans to inject government further into the American family room and boardroom. He lauded the extension of the Bush-era tax rates passed in December but later pledged to end existing tax breaks for some corporations, something that hampers business growth and, contrary to what Democrats say, burdens more than the wealthy.
Obama proposed spending $8 billion a year in research and development on "clean energy technologies" and said, "To help pay for it, I'm asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies." But the money the U.S. government "gives" to the oil companies is $4 billion in the form of tax deductions, not a subsidy like he would provide to researchers.
Obama's pledge to freeze discretionary spending is a start given what Rep Paul Ryan, R-Wis., in his GOP response rightly called a debt crisis that "is the product of acts by many presidents and many Congresses over many years." But that freeze will fall over only 15 percent of the federal budget-and doesn't address how the president will fund light rail systems and nationwide internet or continue higher education tax credits in the midst of a looming national debt crisis, a new obligation to manage national healthcare, and ballooning entitlements.
Meanwhile, Obama made but passing reference to national security-obviously the first and foremost responsibility of any national government. He was nearly 50 minutes into the speech before the subject came up. And what few sentences were devoted to the topic (including an ad hominem on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell") can only be described as dismissive.
Iraq war? ". . . is coming to an end."
Afghanistan? ". . . this July, we will begin to bring our troops home."
Al-Qaeda? "We will defeat you."
New START? "Because we rallied the world, nuclear materials are being locked down on every continent so they never fall into the hands of terrorists."
These were applause lines instead of something to suggest serious policymaking. Worse, the president failed to do the one thing Americans look for in State of the Union speeches, besides stories about their own (like Giffords intern Daniel Hernandez): They look for their head of state to be prophetic.
Where Obama should be describing what the Tunisian revolt could mean across the Middle East, he merely congratulated the protesters. When he should be calling Pakistan and India to settle their differences-because more than almost anything else that would improve Afghanistan's plight, and because he has cultivated a relationship with India to do so-he was silent. Asked repeatedly to speak out for religious freedom in the Muslim world, he has refused, a vacuum that is endangering not only Christian minorities but also Muslim moderates who want to be our allies.
And most egregiously, given an opportunity to put the recent vote in Sudan in proper context, he said this: "In South Sudan-with our assistance-the people were finally able to vote for independence after years of war." He said nothing more about what their vote represents-the first unalloyed victory in the U.S. war on terrorism, an example to study and replicate in U.S. and African diplomatic intervention in the midst of Islamic extremism, and a proper answer to Islamic authoritarianism-which most Americans understand is why 6,000 young Americans have given their lives since 9/11.
On issues that may most matter to our economic health and future prosperity, Obama seems to be reading the morning's intelligence briefings but not thinking about what they mean and how he should lead as a result. His speech was thus crafted around applause lines that felt good last night but fail to carry us forward as an "American family" with purpose.