Call me a glutton for punishment, but I like watching State of the Union speeches. They're an impressive spectactle, even if a relatively recent invention--the president of the United States standing in the Capitol, speaking to the combined membership of the Senate and House, Supreme Court justices, and of course the American people and as much of the world as cares to watch.
The speeches themselves tend toward the prosaic, usually little more than laundry lists of programs and platitudes. They've become a good place to talk about far-reaching programs that never actually come about--beating cancer, landing humans on Mars, that kind of thing. Even President Obama, who showed in Tucson that he can deliver a speech that soars, gave a fairly pedestrian SOTU in 2010.
Then of course, there was Bush, for whom public speaking was never a strong point. Neither, apparently, was honestly, since some of his most glaring lies were delivered during SOTU speeches. The one in 2003 is particulary notable. In it, he said, "From three Iraqi defectors we know that Iraq, in the late 1990s, had several mobile biological weapons labs. These are designed to produce germ warfare agents and can be moved from place to a place to evade inspectors. Saddam Hussein has not disclosed these facilities. He has given no evidence that he has destroyed them.
"The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed in the 1990s that Saddam Hussein had an advanced nuclear weapons development program, had a design for a nuclear weapon and was working on five different methods of enriching uranium for a bomb.
"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
"Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production."
And went on from there. Now, of course, we know the truth--there was no nuclear program. The "mobile weapons labs" weren't. There was no African yellow-cake uranium, and members of Bush's administration exposed the identity of a covert CIA agent in an attempt to maintain the lie. And the aluminum tubes might have been meant for short-range rocket launchers, but had nothing to do with nuclear weapons.
Obama's task in this week's SOTU is a tricky one. He has to walk a very fine line. He'll be faced with a new, Tea Party-infused Congress, and he needs to steer the country in one direction while not calling them hypocrites to their faces. Because that's what they are if they actually believe that we can keep giving tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans and still seriously address the deficit. Tea Partiers (since the "Tea" stands for Taxed Enough Already) should be rallying around the president who, in his first few weeks in office, signed into law a tax cut for 95% of working Americans, and followed that up with an extension of the BUsh tax cuts for everyone, including those who need it least and would be just fine without it. He has to point out to his foes in Congress and around the country that their talk of a trillion dollars or more in spending cuts is exactly the wrong thing for right now, while we're in the midst of a creaky recovery that still has not created nearly enough jobs. Big companies are sitting on piles of cash, but they're not using it to hire people, because consumers on the whole aren't buying the goods and services available now. If private industry isn't hiring, then the government has to, because the only way to generate consumer spending is to put money into the pockets of those who will go out and spend it. The quickest way to whittle down a deficit, as we learned in the 1990s when we eliminated the Reagan/Bush 1 deficit, is with a strong economy. Cutting billions of dollars in spending now would only set back the recovery and extend joblessness.
What the Tea Partiers might not understand is that their leaders, the Dick Armeys and the Koch Brothers and their ilk, are working toward is what Grover Norquist famously called "starving the beast." If you don't like government, then you reduce its ability to raise revenue. This impacts its ability to spend money on things that people might appreciate, turning those people against government as well. The problem is, a country as big and diverse and complicated as ours requires a certain amount of spending to function correctly. It can't all be left up to the states--we are, after all, the United States of America, not the Disconnected but Adjoining States of America.
For an example of Grover Norquist's dream in action, one doesn't have to look farther than Arizona. During the boom years, Arizona's far-right legislature cut every revenue enhancer it could find. All those tax cuts did nothing to help the state's coffers when the overall national economy tanked, and in fact Arizona's budget woes were among the worst in the country. So the state's response (necessarily) is to cut spending. The cuts they're making threaten community colleges and universities, swell classroom sizes in public schools, shut parks and libraries. Now Arizona wants a waiver allowing it to rescind health care coverage for 280,000 of its poorest citizens, even though that waiver would also mean turning away more than a billion dollars of badly needed federal funds. And that doesn't even begin to address the 96 people remaining of the 98 who have been dennied transplant funding they were once promised.
Simply looking at health care, we can see the danger in this sort of approach. When poor people don't have health insurance through a job or provided by government, then they don't go to a doctor unless they're desperately ill. Then the only doctor they can afford is the emergency room, which they don't pay for but the rest of us do. When they're working for an inadequate hourly salary, they will go to work even if they're moderately sick, threatening the health of everyone else they come into contact with. Their health is more at risk because the poorest neighborhoods don't have good grocery stores with lots of fresh produce and other healthy foods, nor do they necessarily have the education or resources to seek those foods out. The places that service their neighborhoods tend to be small corner markets specializing in packaged foods and liquor, and fast food restaurants where the food is cheap but rarely healthy. These health issues ripple through society, locking those people into a kind of permanent underclass where their education suffers and therefore their opportunities are limited.
Arizona's approach to its budgetary problem is not to raise more revenue, but to slash services like education for everyone and health care for the poor. Long-term, that's a disaster. It's starving the beast, all right, and it results in a government that serves only the wealthiest few (a permanent underclass provides no societal benefit except low-cost employees for certain types of inustry) and that is despised by everyone else. Therefore the goal--of making everyone hate government just as much as Mr. Norquist does--is achieved.
President Obama needs to show the country that there's a different route for us, and he'll be doing so before a largely hostile audience. It's going to be quite the balancing act, and I'll definitely be watching.