The president didn’t go as far as he needed to, but he began to articulate an argument that the American people need to hear.
The president’s State of the Union speech last night was not a progressive’s delight. But it straightforwardly and strongly put forth a case for government that the president has heretofore not made. Perhaps America is again ready to listen after the dominance of an anti-government narrative for so long.
Last night, the president covered a lot of territory, and in fact almost all the important bases. He made several unfortunate nods to the right, including proudly boasting of his new offshore oil drilling plans and a renewed offer to use Social Security and Medicare as negotiating tools in order to raise taxes on the wealthy and cut taxes for the rest. He did not suggest that perhaps we could live with this deficit until the economy righted itself. He certainly did not suggest new stimulus, which is what we need. But the overall impact of the speech was to make a case for government.
He took on the loss of manufacturing jobs as his first item of business, after some deliberately patriotic claims about how the world is much safer today. This was important. Most mainstream economists, including many who lean Democratic, have little taste for government interference in the markets to create more manufacturing jobs. They say declining manufacturing is only natural. But Obama rightly said he would use the tax code to penalize those who send jobs overseas and reward those who bring them home. He will set up a task force on unfair trade practices. He called China out for such practices. This was pretty tough talk. Granted, he didn’t call for less currency manipulation but that would have been pretty insensitive in a State of the Union address.
He made proposals regarding education, infrastructure, housing, and energy, calling for investment in clean energy as well as dirty energy like fracking and offshore drilling. But he also said in a direct attack on Republicans that we have subsidized oil too long.
He also made a deliberate, explicit case for government regulation in general — over drilling, on Wall Street, everywhere it was needed. Aside from making the tax system more progressive, his case for regulation was perhaps his most important ideological claim for a strong government. But his case for government — from tax subsidies to infrastructure investment to higher taxes on the wealthy to a new attack on financial fraud — was unmistakable.