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Obama tells Republicans: I’m tired of begging for cooperation

The president’s State of the Union message captured well the evolving state of his presidency.

An Afghan man in Kabul watches a television broadcast of President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech.
REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

President Obama’s State of the Union message captured well the evolving state of his presidency as it enters its second term.

Obama is a solid liberal. I liked the speech and agreed with many of Obama’s policy goals, which were something of a laundry list of things liberals would like to do if they had the votes in Congress. But they don’t. The federal minimum wage will not be raised to $9 an hour in the next two years. A new universal right to preschool will not be established. I don’t expect him to get much of what he asked for last night that requires congressional action.

The outline of a deal for comprehensive immigration was the only proposal that received a bipartisan standing ovation, and that is only because Republicans have made a political conversion on the issue based on the result of the last election and the  belief that they can’t win future elections without a larger portion of the growing Hispanic vote.

Other than that, the speech consisted of dozens of ideas that liberals support and conservatives oppose, ideas that cannot be attempted in today’s fiscal climate without significant additional tax increases on wealthy individuals and large corporations. Opposing those tax increases is the meaning of life for the contemporary Republican Party which, despite a very bad election showing, still controls a House majority and enough of the Senate to mount a filibuster if necessary.

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The many references in Obama’s speech to bipartisanship and to the fact that some of his proposals have been supported in the past by some Republicans won’t fool anyone.

So why make this speech at this time? As I look at it, Obama was saying to the Republicans something like the following:

I spent most of my first term trying to bring you along. I moderated many of my real policy preferences and begged for cooperation. In response, you energized your base around the silly notion that I was a socialist and worse, an illegitimate president. That despicable approach worked for you in 2010, won you the House and a filibusterable minority in the Senate, which you used to waste the next two years hoping to be rid of me. But you’re not rid of me. You’re stuck with me for four more years and I’m stuck with you for at least two more, pending the midterm election.

So this is the second-term version of me I previewed in the inaugural address. I’m not really prepared to lead with my compromise proposals. I’m going to lead with my real proposals. If you reject most of them, as I assume you will, we’ll continue the public argument and see which vision the public prefers. We’ll see if the public rewards you for committing two more years, or even four more years, to gridlock.

If you don’t like that scenario, I am open to a grand bargain in which both parties will get some of what they want. But if we reach that bargain in my second term, it will have to be because you came to me in a spirit of real compromise.

Many conservatives said after the speech that Obama is in denial about the depth of the fiscal crisis and especially about the projected growth rate of entitlement spending. Obama did try to open the door a crack, claiming that:

“On Medicare, I’m prepared to enact reforms that will achieve the same amount of health care savings by the beginning of the next decade as the reforms proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission.”

The details may show that Obama’s ideas for Medicare savings come mostly at the expense of doctors and the health care industry. But to the extent that Republicans believe some of the pain has to be absorbed by future seniors, let them make that clear.

The full text of the address is here.

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A couple of excerpts that seemed key or especially moving to me were:

Excerpt 1: The middle class

It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth – a rising, thriving middle class.

It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country – the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.

It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few; that it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation.

The American people don’t expect government to solve every problem. They don’t expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue. But they do expect us to put the nation’s interests before party. They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can. For they know that America moves forward only when we do so together; and that the responsibility of improving this union remains the task of us all.

Excerpt 2: Tax breaks

Why would we choose to make deeper cuts to education and Medicare just to protect special interest tax breaks? How is that fair? How does that promote growth?

Excerpt 3: Deficit reduction

Now, most of us agree that a plan to reduce the deficit must be part of our agenda. But let’s be clear: deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan. A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs – that must be the North Star that guides our efforts. Every day, we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation: How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills needed to do those jobs? And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?

Excerpt 4: Voting

We should follow the example of a North Miami woman named Desiline Victor. When she arrived at her polling place, she was told the wait to vote might be six hours. And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say. Hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line in support of her. Because Desiline is 102 years old. And they erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read “I Voted.”

Obama’s speech did contain several serious factual problems, some of which are detailed in this piece by AP fact-checker Calvin Woodard. For example, when Obama bragged that: “We have doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas,” he referred to new standards that will not take full effect for 12 more years.

Rubio’s rebuttal

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was tapped for the official Republican rebuttal.

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For most of his appearance, he looked good and sounded good. (Yes, it’s true, that toward the end of his speech, he developed a powerful need for a sip of water, but those who gleefully dwell on this demean only themselves.)

But when I say Rubio sounded good, I refer mostly to the tone of his voice and his youthful enthusiasm and charm. He actually made little sense. He sang the praises of Medicare and federal college-loan programs because those programs had helped him personally and his parents, but then he says: “More government isn’t going to help you get ahead. It’s going to hold you back. More government isn’t going to create more opportunities. It’s going to limit them.”

Why didn’t the government subsidized loans that enabled him to go to college hold him back? I didn’t hear his answer.

I’m not sure if Rubio meant to call Obama a socialist quite this explicitly, but he said:

“Presidents in both parties – from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan – have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity. But President Obama? He believes it’s the cause of our problems.”

In U.S. political discourse, this is the waving of the red flag.

Rand Paul

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky gave a second rebuttal, representing not the Republican Party per se but its Tea Party wing. His presentation is more coherent because he isn’t really trying to have it both ways. He is an out-of-the-closet small-government libertarian who is prepared to abolish a great many current government functions.

For starters, he favors allowing the “sequestration” spending cuts to go through. Said Paul:

Ronald Reagan said, government is not the answer to the problem, government is the problem. Tonight, the president told the nation he disagrees. President Obama believes government is the solution: More government, more taxes, more debt. What the president fails to grasp is that the American system that rewards hard work is what made America so prosperous.

Every debate in Washington is about how much to increase spending – a little or a lot. About how much to increase taxes – a little or a lot. The president does a big “woe is me” over the $1.2 trillion sequester that he endorsed and signed into law. Some Republicans are joining him. Few people understand that the sequester doesn’t even cut any spending. It just slows the rate of growth. Even with the sequester, government will grow over $7 trillion over the next decade. Only in Washington could an increase of $7 trillion in spending over a decade be called a cut.

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Personally, I appreciate that Paul doesn’t sugar-coat. But his view is rooted in the belief that America’s greatness is founded on the idea that “men and women were guaranteed a chance to succeed based NOT on who your parents were but on your own initiative and desire to work.”

This pitch might have worked better when CEO’s made only 24 times as much as their average employee, as opposed to 243 times as much in 2011.

I don’t assume that Sen. Paul believes that the 243-1 ratio is all about initiative and desire to work, but it would be helpful if he would explain how he does see it.

The full Rand Paul response is here.