Obama’s State of the Union Sets Up Deficit Debate, then Cheerleads

Recap the State of the Union with Colorlines.com editor Kai Wright's live blog of the speech.

By Kai Wright Jan 26, 2011

President Obama delivered his second State of the Union and fourth address to a joint Congress last night. Pundits have generally responded to his rallying tone, which was Obama’s the latest effort to revive the guy millions loved in 2008. He focused on civility and unity, framed his ideas as grand scale initiatives that rise above the old debates of left and right, and hammered home a theme of American "innovation" as the way out of today’s troubles. In the end, he said almost nothing tangible, leaving us with little more knowledge of the White House’s priorities for the next two years than we had before the speech began. There were two big pieces of news, however: He vowed a five-year freeze in domestic discretionary spending, but demanded we end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent as well. Everything the White House says and does over the next two years will be managed to reinforce this two-step strategy on the spending-vs.-deficit reduction debate that will dominate the 2012 campaign. The president also championed his Race to the Top education reform, which many educators and schools advocates have argued is just top-down, testing-driven, charter-fetishizing reform by another name. Our reporter Julianne Hing will dig more deeply into the administration’s education reform efforts tomorrow. For now, you can recap the speech through my live blog from last night. Take a look. — **Update @ 10:21:** And we arrive at the necessary jingoism part of the night: [America, fuck yeah! ](http://www.amazon.com/America-Fuck-Yeah-Album-Version/dp/B001230P36) Hey, don’t let me rain on anybody’s patriotism parade. And I’m as proud as anybody else of ambitious individuals and entrepreneurs like Brandon Fisher. But here’s the thing, the state of our union is plainly not strong. To the contrary, we are in deep, lasting crisis born of decades’ worth of refusal to acknowledge hard realities. From economics to climate, our insistence that anything is possible, that there are no limits to our growth, have driven us to a collapse. And our refusal to acknowledge the massive inequity that has fueled that unchecked growth–no subprime lending, no housing boom; no slave labor by undocumented immigrants, no successful "innovation" from a whole lot of sectors of the economy–will always damn our fates. All the cheerleading in the world won’t change those things. Also, not for nothing, the president said next to nothing tangible tonight. Let’s unify. Let’s innovate. Let’s spend responsibly. Go forth and be Americans. I dunno, but I look around at the struggling families I know and have covered, and seems like we need a hell of a lot more than that right now. — **Update @ 10:06:** We arrive at the main event: deficit reduction. Obama is good at this conversation, actually, and he’s reminding us of that tonight. It’s easy to forget that after two years of frustration with the "principled compromise" trope. But like the green economy stuff, Obama meaningfully drove the spending-vs.-cuts debate forward back in 2008. His frame of *smart* spending reduction is compelling to most people, and it’s also actually correct. Tonight, he’s proposed a five year freeze in discretionary domestic spending. That’s meaningless; the real money is spent on non-discretionary stuff like Medicare, education, Social Security and so on. But it’s an easy way to dismiss the Republican straw man of wasteful, indulgent spending. (Similarly, Obama’s quips about silly environmental regulation is an easy way to steal the GOP thunder on how absurd Washington’s spending can be.) Both set him up to make the real point: Spending cuts alone won’t do it. We can’t afford Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent. Get used to this conversation, as both parties are eager to have it over the next two years. Barring some unforeseen *new* foreign policy crises, the defining (and related) issues of 2012 are deficit reduction and jobs. And make no mistake, [this speech inaugurates the 2012 campaign.](http://colorlines.com/archives/2011/01/the_state_of_our_union_is_weak_but_the_2012_campaign_begins_now.html) — **Update @ 9:49:** Shorter immigration reform…What he said good: Pass the DREAM Act: >One last point about education. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet live every day with the threat of deportation. Others 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. What he said bad: I’ll keep deporting a record number of people and wasting billions on ineffective border militarization that’s [getting more lethal every day](http://colorlines.com/archives/2011/01/parents_of_slain_mexican_boy_sue_dhs.html). >Now, I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration. I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows. — **Update @ 9:44:** I’ll leave a take on Obama’s Race to the Top education reform to our reporter Julianne Hing. She’ll chime in with a full update on the program by Thursday. According to Obama, "Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation." Suffice to say, it’s [a bit more complicate than that.](http://colorlines.com/tag/Race%20To%20The%20Top) — **Update @ 9:37:** Sputnik II. That’s been the buzz for days in advance, as the White House hopes to put Obama and Kennedy in the same breath again. It’s both smart politics and smart policy. Obama happily took a swipe at oil companies, and they’re an easy and appropriate villain. So he says the feds are going to redirect money from Big Oil’s tax breaks and into "innovation" investment. There’s a lot of promise here, and Professor Obama can be an excellent messenger for it. The Bush White House became a standard bearer for anti-intellectual, anti-scientific ignorance (and for keeping Big Oil fat). Even if no policy changes, the president could do great service by leading a national conversation to restore science and intellectual rigor as a point of national pride. His vision for green jobs was certainly a compelling part of his original economic narrative, and it’s nice to see it return. And wouldn’t that green economy be nice? It’ll take real fight to get it, and don’t expect it before 2012. And the devil will be in the details: What jobs, for whom and where? [Green for All ](http://www.greenforall.org/)has lots of good resources on this conversation. — **Update @ 9:25:** Obama dove right into the real issue once dispensing with the unity trope: Where’s the jobs. He offers a poetic hark back to the good old days when "finding a good job meant showing up at a nearby factory or a business downtown. You didn’t always need a degree, and your competition was pretty much limited to your neighbors. If you worked hard, chances are you’d have a job for life, with a decent paycheck, good benefits, and the occasional promotion. Maybe you’d even have the pride of seeing your kids work at the same company. That world has changed." Due respect Mr. President, but that’s some bullshit. That’s not a history that’s particularly relevant to generations of people of color, who could not in fact get those jobs. This is more than a rhetorical concern. [As I wrote Monday](http://colorlines.com/archives/2011/01/the_state_of_our_union_is_weak_but_the_2012_campaign_begins_now.html), too many communities–in particular black ones–never recovered from the 2001 recession. That’s because our policy solutions to it did nothing to address the structural inequalities the economy was built around. And today, no amount of happy talk about becoming competitive with China will end that decade-plus recession without a structural intervention. And not for nothing, it was that unaddressed black recession that created the customers who fueled the subprime crisis that broke the world. — **Update @ 9:17p :** It comes as no surprise that the president opens his address with a poetic turn on unity. For one thing the text of the speech was leaked in advance. But also because Obama’s riding a wave of popularity he’s missed in recent months after his moving speech on the Tuscon shootings. One worries, however, that the White House is learning the wrong lesson. In times of national tragedy, Americans always rally around their leaders. New York City despised Rudy Guiliani, until 9/11. So Obama had a pretty low bar for that Tuscon speech. The real polling bump to mind is the one he got at the end of the lame duck Congress. What drove that? Winning. For the first time in two years, Obama wasn’t on the defense. Instead, he was shoving bills through Congress and declaring victory. That’s the lesson. Whatever he chooses to focus on following tonight, he’ll do well to spend less time on unity and more on winning. — President Obama delivers his second State of the Union tonight, and fourth address to a joint Congress. The first question I’ve been asked by a number of colleagues on the left is, Who cares? It’s a good question. It’s not just a statement of frustration with Obama–though, there’s plenty of that. It’s more a fatigue with the rote exercises of electoral politics. Year after year, journalists, activists and even individual voters turn earnestly toward Washington and engage it. We build coalitions and get out the vote come election. We propose legislation when the voting’s over. We watchdog the implementation of new policies as they roll out. And in what seems lately to be an inevitable end, we arrive at frustration and disappointment when the interests of a handful of rich and powerful outweigh those of everyone else. Then an election comes and we repeat the cycle. For many, the past three years are the defining example of this hamster wheel of democracy gone awry. And the State of the Union may be among the least compelling turns of the wheel. After all, the biggest story of this evening has been some Congress members’ decision to sit next to people in the opposite party. It’s hard to imagine a more empty gesture. But here’s the thing, the State of the Union is also, if appropriately engaged, an accountability moment for our chief executive. There are few moments when the president stands up and speaks to the entire nation, outside of campaign season. It’s his (and one day, her) chance to stand up and outline where he intends to guide the nation over the next year. Those are too often empty promises; indeed, the budget proposal the White House releases in the weeks following each State of the Union is far more consequential. But this is the only government we’ve got, and it’s our responsibility as citizens to engage it. Too many elected officials and horse-race political pundits have reduced this and other elements of our democracy to meaningless ceremony. We can’t do the same as citizens. At minimum–and that’s not a stopping point–we have to pay attention to what our elected officials say, so we can hold them accountable to it.