By Liz Peek
President Obama’s State of the Union speech was blandly pleasant – rather like a dinner composed entirely of rice pudding.
The audience left feeling full, but quickly craved substance. His mission was to convince the country that his recent volte face is sincere – that he really does understand the business community’s unhappiness with our excessive red tape and uncompetitive tax regime, that he gets the nation’s frustration with our sorry schools and out-of-control malpractice lawsuits, and that he is a willing partner in reducing our budget deficit.
At the same time, he has to convince the folks who elected him in the first place – the unions and the tort lawyers who provided the bulk of his campaign funds – that he won’t step on their toes.
Mr. Obama walked a fine line in his second official speech addressing the state of the country, which is why, perhaps, it lacked fire.
Of course, it was hard to generate the kind of energy that used to derive from warring sections of the house jumping up and down in coordinated blocks like pistons in a well-tuned engine. The audience was slow to rise to their feet and to break into applause – they lacked guidance. Sitting all jumbled up with members of the opposing party, they were confused. I’m taking bets that we won’t see date night again any time soon.
Perhaps the speech also fell a bit flat because it lacked conviction. Of course, it it hard to get impassioned about sentences like “We are part of the American family.” Or “We measure progress by the success of our people.” Even extolling the virtues of our great nation, as in “no workers are more productive,” the president sounds like someone reading off a catalog of shoe styles.
President Obama warms to certain topics naturally; he is genuinely excited about green energy, and about raising the number of kids who go to college. Unfortunately, he dulls our enthusiasm for these laudable goals by casting them in a “winner and loser” manner. He cannot extol clean energy without vowing to remove tax subsidies for oil companies. He won’t promise more college grads without celebrating the destruction of the student loan industry. The jury is still out on whether the government is doing a better job of processing loans to students than private companies did.
Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who had the unenviable job of responding to the president, lived up to his role as chief worrywart, correctly alerting Americans that we face a budget crisis.
Mr. Ryan is a thoughtful and dedicated legislator who is genuinely determined to bring down our budget deficits. He correctly tagged the Obama administration as author of some of the stupider spending hikes of late -- such as the 25% increase in outlays for domestic government agencies. He is right – “the fiscal challenge is now a fiscal crisis.”
Unhappily, he will not sell Americans on the Republicans’ ability to turn around our country unless he can weave into the budget narrative greater opportunity and promise. Mr. Obama does that very well.
Over the next two years, the competing visions for the country’s prospects will become all too clear. For all the cosmetic changes of the past month, Mr. Obama remains a community activist at heart. He truly believes it is up to government to fix our problems.
Republicans, on the other hand, want to find solutions in the private sector. Given our budget crisis, we have to hope the country will recognize the limitations of the former approach, and embrace the latter. More important, let us hope that Democrats will team with Republicans in a serious way to address some of the dire issues confronting this country. Does that sound like even more rice pudding?
Liz Peek is a financial columnist who writes for The Fiscal Times.