Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Obama's State of the Union message, 2013

Obama's State of the Union (SOTU) speech Tuesday night has set off the usual post-speech tea-leaf reading. Here is the video:

Here are the official White House transcripts, President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address -- As Prepared for Delivery 02/12/2013, and Remarks by the President in the State of the Union Address 02/12/2013.

Digby in Best SOTU analysis Hullabaloo 02/13/2013 points out one difference between the prepared text and the actual speech and has a plausible speculation on what it means.

The thing that stands out most to me from the speech is that he once again offered up cuts in benefits to Medicare and Social Security. Apart from being a terrible idea that would do needless harm to many people and that he ought to be ashamed of himself for promoting such a thing, it also signals Republicans that he's not going to go to push hard of his own accord for any controversial liberal proposal. A Democratic President who's taking the lead offering cuts in Medicare and Social Security - and that's what he's did in 2011 and late 2012 and what he was doing Tuesday night - is essentially a conservative when it comes to economics, including vital social programs from Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He pretty much announced his intention to throw in the towel already on the assault weapons ban, though the press no doubt gratified him by giving him much credit for his weak insistence, "Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress. If you want to vote no, that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote." That's not a leader who sounds like his serious on pushing through the assault weapons ban, the most controversial provision of Diane Feinstein's proposed Assault Weapons Ban of 2013 and the one that would cost firearms companies the most money.

His speech also focused the discussion of economic policy around The Deficit and austerity, continuing as he did throughout his first term to reinforce the Republicans' preferred framing of the issue. As Robert Reich puts it, "austerity economics is a cruel hoax." (Coming Tuesday (Hopefully): The State of the Union's Economy 02/09/2013)

Zachary A. Goldfarb reports that Obama plans to rely more on Executive orders to get around Republican obstruction in Congress. (Zachary A. Goldfarb, Obama weighing executive actions on housing, gays and other issues Washington Post 02/10/2013) Although I worry it's another sign of the Weimarization of the US government, there are certainly legitimate and constructive things he can do by direct action without abuse of Executive power. One very constructive one would be to use the federal government's contracting power more broadly to promote a pro-union environment. But in the SOTU's as delivered, I count one mention of labor and that only in passing in the context of immigration reform, and 14 of business. Because, as another President fond of conservative economics, Cavlin Coolidge, famously said, "The business of America is business."

If the SOTU is any measure, don't look for aggressive measures to support labor in Obama's second term.

David Sanger reports on the White House's plan to reduce nuclear weapons in Obama to Renew Drive for Cuts in Nuclear Arms New York Times 02/10/2013. And Obama in the SOTU did say, "we’ll engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals, and continue leading the global effort to secure nuclear materials that could fall into the wrong hands -- because our ability to influence others depends on our willingness to lead and meet our obligations."

But does the following mean that Obama is being realistic about the need to go around Congress or that he's pre-compromising, as he so often does?

The big question is how to accomplish a reduction that Mr. Obama views as long overdue, considering that Republicans in the Senate opposed even the modest cuts in the new arms reduction treaty, called Start. The White House is loath to negotiate an entirely new treaty with Russia, which would lead to Russian demands for restrictions on American and NATO missile-defense systems in Europe and would reprise a major fight with Republicans in the Senate over ratification.

Instead, Mr. Obama is weighing how to reach an informal agreement with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for mutual cuts within the framework of the new Start — but without the need for ratification. Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, is planning to travel to Russia next month, officials say, to lay the groundwork for those talks. Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin will hold two summit meetings in the early summer.
Why not force the Republicans to vote on it? Nuclear arms reduction is popular, especially if the President sells it aggressively. If they turn it down, Obama could still go the Executive route. But it's not as solid as a negotiated treaty. And, really, the sooner we get rid of the junk Star Wars program, the better. It's been maybe the biggest boondoggle in human history.

Sanger's article goes on to say how Obama plans to emphasize cyber-security and may implement provisions of a law that Congress previously rejected by Executive order. Given this Administration's awful civil liberties record when it comes to cyber-snooping by the government and severe crackdowns on leakers of non-critical but classified information, I don't like the sound of this.

Progressive achievements in the second term will have to come by public pressure reflected among members of Congress pushing him into it. I'm happy to see that defenders of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are already pressing that fight against Obama and the Republicans, as Sabrina Siddiqui reports in As Sequester Threatens Entitlement Programs, Progressive Coalition Warns Democrats Against Cuts Huffington Post 02/13/2013:

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy For America, MoveOn, CREDO Action, Rebuild The Dream, the New York-based Working Families Party and Social Security Works are endorsing a letter to President Barack Obama, signed by Reps. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) and Mark Takano (D-Calif.), warning against cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits. The seven groups are also hoping to enlist their combined membership of over 12 million people to sign onto the effort.

"We will vote against any and every cut to Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security benefits -- including raising the retirement age or cutting the cost of living adjustments that our constituents earned and need," reads the Grayson-Takano letter.
That's what we should have heard Tuesday night from the Democratic President. But he is the political leader taking the lead in proposing cuts to those programs.

Jill Lawrence discusses the SOTU in some detail in What History Tells Us About the Future of Obama’s Agenda National Journal 02/13/2013. David Lauter does a briefer analysis of the speech for the Los Angeles Times, Obama takes a two-pronged approach 02/13/2013.

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