My reaction to last night’s State of the Union address begins from compassion for my fellow wonks, and ends with a sense that the Democrats’ political fortunes in the coming years may not be so rosy as many on the Left would like to think.
By the end of the speech, I was feeling sorry for the White House policy staff. It’s perfectly clear looking over the text that they have just been through a months-long budget policy process that must have ended in total failure.
Anyone who has been through this annual exercise at the White House would recognize the tell-tale signs. The phrase “I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take,” which came quite early in the speech in relation to energy and environmental policy, is the policy staffer’s worst nightmare in a State of the Union address. It’s your boss saying you failed. It means that after months of meetings and dozens of memos, the White House, OMB, and the relevant cabinet agencies couldn’t even agree on executive actions to take, let alone on a proposal to include in the budget or to press for in Congress. I thought it was strange that Obama would put that declaration of failure so early in the speech. Why not raise your key 2014 budget proposals first–that’s generally what the State of the Union is for–and then do cleanup on the issues that some constituencies want to hear about but that you weren’t able to pull off? If you look at State of the Union addresses from the past few decades, that’s usually how they work.
As the speech went on, though, the reason became clear: There were no 2014 budget proposals. The president didn’t even mention his forthcoming budget–again, that’s usually a big part of what this speech is for. And he didn’t make any significant proposal for reforming any government program, for launching any new one, ending any old one, or doing much of anything in particular that he hasn’t been pushing unsuccessfully for years. It was like an eighth-year State of the Union address, not a fifth-year one.
You have to try to cover up such things, of course, especially if you’re a Democrat, and so the president did speak of all manner of obnoxious federal micromanagement initiatives with fancy names–manufacturing hubs, “fix it first,” a “partnership to rebuild America,” a challenge to “redesign America’s schools,” an “Energy Security Trust,” and so on. But you know what these things are? They’re nothing. They’re the headings that the wonks in a Democratic White House put at the top of otherwise blank memos at the beginning of a process that, months later, is supposed to end up with a budget and a State of the Union address. And here they were at the end of that process with barely more meat on their bones than when they started. Some of these proposals might “happen” and some of them will not, but there won’t be any difference between the two.
From my point of view, this is basically a good thing. Of course, it would have been nice if the president had offered some proposals to address our looming fiscal crisis–and what he had to say about entitlement reform and tax reform amounted to essentially nothing new–or to actually spur economic growth. I agree entirely with the editors’ critique this morning. But there was no reason to expect that from this president. What we might have expected, especially in light of his second inaugural, was a much more assertive progressive agenda. If the president had an ambitious left-wing agenda, his party might have the numbers to push some portion of it through Congress, or at least to force the coming year to be focused on the subjects they want to talk about. So it’s a good thing he doesn’t. He ran for re-election without a governing agenda, and it now seems he will preside without one too. He offered a tonally progressive speech (as John Podhoretz aptly put it this morning, “a liberal fantasy of a State of the Union straight out of The West Wing,”) but like those West Wing speeches, it just didn’t add up to anything substantive.
Why is that? I think there are probably three inter-related reasons. First is the exhaustion of liberalism in our time. It might be odd to speak of exhaustion when liberals feel so ascendant now, but that’s when exhaustion happens, and the fact is that the progressive ideal laid out so clearly in Obama’s second inaugural is an exhausted ideology. It is so both because of its successes–after health care, there are no large pieces left in the social-democratic puzzle the left has been building in fits and starts for a century in America–and because of its failures: It is increasingly clear that the liberal welfare state is not sustainable in its current form, and its costs and inefficiencies are increasingly present and real and are putting huge burdens on our economy at every level. This can’t really go on. From here on, the left has mostly to play a defensive game of retrenchment and reaction, and this is an exhausting game, especially for liberals. If you put the narrative laid out in the president’s second inaugural together with the speech he gave last night, you have a story of past glory and present exhaustion.
Second is the smallness of this particular president at this particular time. It is not a coincidence that the only policy initiative the president spoke about last night that actually seems to be going somewhere was immigration reform, which is moving in Congress not because the president wanted it to but because some leading Democrats and Republicans seem to have decided that they had to take it into their own hands. It’s an effort that will only succeed if Obama mostly stays out of it, and he knows that. I think we are entering a period, at least for the next two years, of congressional supremacy in which something closer to regular order resumes in Congress and the interaction of the Republican House and the Democratic Senate will be what determines the policy agenda. The President will sign anything that passes both houses, and meaningful legislation will only be likely to pass if he is mostly kept at arm’s length from it. This is in part because of the dynamics of a divided Congress (especially now that the House Republicans no longer see confronting Obama as their key priority) and in part because of the president’s almost unbelievable incompetence in dealing with both parties in Congress in the past four years. Under these circumstances, it might have been a little ridiculous for Obama to propose a detailed legislative agenda last night. He’s in the strange position of having to stay somewhat out of policy debates in which he wants to see progress in his second term. It looks like he’s in the process of becoming a very weak president.
But the third reason may be the most significant in the next few years. It becomes evident in contrasting Obama’s speech with Rubio’s response. Simply put, the foremost problem to which the country now wants a solution from Washington is the problem of slow economic growth, and the Democrats are in a very bad position to advance solutions to that problem.
As the president suggested, and Rubio said outright, slow growth is the key barrier to upward mobility and a key source of pressure on middle-class families, and only robust growth offers a plausible way out of our economic and fiscal problems. The core of Rubio’s speech was basically an outline of how he thinks growth could be achieved now. It suggested an implicit assumption that the reason the economy is not growing is the inefficiency or unproductivity of our economy today–and especially of the p
ublic sector and those portions of the public sector most dominated by the government–and it proposed entitlement reform (to induce greater efficiency in health care and to reduce federal spending), education reform (to improve the quality of our labor force and provide greater opportunities for mobility), tax reform (to reduce needless drag on the economy by raising revenue more efficiently), immigration reform (to improve the quality of our labor force), and energy exploration (to make the fossil fuels that power today’s economy much cheaper). I think that’s a pretty plausible list (though I would add real health-care reform beyond the entitlements to vastly improve productivity and reduce costs, and regulatory reform to ensure open competition rather than further advantage large established players throughout the economy). And when you look over that list, you realize the Democrats’ dilemma. They are prevented by the politics of their electoral coalition from seriously advancing most of these ideas.
The real progressives are staunchly opposed to entitlement reform and unhappy with tax reform that doesn’t raise rates (as an efficiency-oriented reform would not), the environmentalists are allergic to fossil fuel exploration, the teachers’ unions won’t hear of real K-12 reform while the professoriate (which is remarkably important to the party) will resist a genuine transformation of the university business model. That leaves only immigration reform, which is certainly the least economically significant of the elements of Rubio’s growth agenda, and is also the only element of that agenda that wouldn’t directly reduce the cost of living of the middle class. The Democrats can talk in general about ways of reducing the cost of living of the middle class (as the president talked about college costs last night) but in practice the only means they can really offer to significantly do that at this point is by giving middle-class Americans more benefits, which is certainly not a means of encouraging economic growth.
This suggests a huge opening for Republicans–an opportunity to advance a prosperity agenda with direct benefits for middle-class families and which the Democrats could not really match. It also suggests that we should expect more empty speeches from the president in the coming years, and that for all that liberals today feel ascendant and empowered, they are both exhausted and vulnerable. If Obama is as true a modern progressive as his second inaugural suggested, then he will not be well positioned to get the left out of this difficulty. And if Republicans move to capitalize on the opportunity (which is still a big “if”), Democrats could find themselves in serious political trouble relatively quickly. There will surely be steps they can take to alleviate that trouble, but voting on gun control and cap-and-trade are not among them.
Yuval Levin is Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of National Affairs.