Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Obama's State of the Union

Can the left live with it?

President Obama's speech last night was definitely not a leftist call to arms. But in the wake of a stinging electoral defeat for Democrats in November, it was, by and large, the speech Obama needed to give; and a speech well within his strike zone. One might have expected progressives to condemn Obama's caution, his willingness to concede space to Republicans with commitments to freeze discretionary spending, take on tort reform and and control Medicare spending, but attacks from the left, so far, are muted and seasoned with approval for some of the things he did say.

Nation writer John Nichols adopted a balanced tone in assessing the State of the Union speech. While noting Obama's declared intention to soften some regulations, continue supporting free-trade agreements, in general, and accommodate other Republican interests, Nichols also applauded Obama's forthright defense of Social Security and government investment in infrastructure.

"Obama has more political capital than he did in the weeks after the election .And he used it to defend Social Security -- rather then embrace calls for slashing benefits or experimenting with privatization – and to renew commitments to classic infrastructure investments in roads, bridges and transit, as well as 21st century projects such as high-speed rail and the development of national wireless networks," Nichols wrote.

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), noted that Obama's call for further controlling healthcare costs should be perceived as a way to defend, not attack Medicare. "In reference to Medicare and Medicaid, President Obama stuck to the facts and pointed out that the problem is the broken U.S. health care system, not inefficiencies in these programs. He noted the progress made in controlling health care costs in the Affordable Care Act, but acknowledged the need to go much further in containing costs," Baker said in a written statement released by CEPR today.

The statement also credits Obama with resisting "...the immense pressure from the financial industry and other opponents of Social Security and Medicare by refusing to call for large cuts in these programs in his State of the Union Address. Given the power of these groups, this would have been the easiest path for him to take. However, he instead insisted on the need to protect Social Security and to ensure that future generations of workers can also depend on it."

But Baker was clear about the speech's shortcomings: "The most disappointing aspect of the speech is that it largely skipped over the current economic crisis. This may reflect a view that there is little that Congress will agree to do to at this point. But it still is unconscionable to accept the idea that 25 million workers will go unemployed or under-employed, with millions more losing their home, because of the economic mismanagement by the country’s leaders."

He also took exception to Obama's continuing support for free trade, arguing that an over-valued dollar is the fundamental cause of the continuing U.S. trade deficits, "the largest imbalance in the economy today."

Robert Scheer's critique of the speech must rank among the best expressions of left-wing frustration with Obama's centrism. Scheer's post today on The Smirking Chimp dismisses the speech as "platitudinous hogwash." Obama ignored "... the depth of our economic pain and the Wall Street scoundrels who were responsible—understandably so, since they so prominently populate the highest reaches of his administration," Scheer wrote. "The speech was a distraction from what seriously ails us: an unabated mortgage crisis, stubbornly high unemployment and a debt that spiraled out of control while the government wasted trillions making the bankers whole."

Scheer's points are well-taken and only occasionally hyperbolic (the government spent $1 trillion on the Wall Street bailout, not "trillions"). Indeed, there are certainly more bankers and brokers in the Obama administration than there ought to be, but it won't be the presence of Wall Street big shots in the administration that will undermine any moves Obama makes to increase investment in infrastructure and high tech. Nor will they force Obama to compromise his defense of Social Security and Medicaid.

Republican opposition, of course, will be the first cause compromising Obama's ability to move forward with domestic infrastructure investments, with further action to control health care costs, with effective follow-up on Sec. of Defense Robert Gates proposed cuts in the military budget and other initiatives progressives wish to see. But a left that cannot refrain from unnuanced and relentlessly hostile critiques of Obama's performance and agenda could pose a further problem.

Right now most observers on the left seem willing to give Obama the benefit if the doubt. That comes as a little bit of a surprise, given the widespread perception that Obama and Congressional Democrats didn't go far enough with health care or squeeze out a bigger stimulus bill. But the odds are that the left was as chastened by the November election results as was Obama. If so, would it be too much to ask that a progressive follow-up include electing a few more progressives to Congress and organizing to take back a few Congressional districts from the Tea Party?

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