Friday, January 29, 2010

Two more on the SOTU

"Nice Speech. Now What?" (Bill Boyarsky):
If words alone could do the trick, President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech worked. But this time, words were not enough.
Words won’t put people to work. Not even Obama’s eloquence—and he did reach that point on occasion—will be enough to inject courage into the gutless Democrats running from a mild heath care reform bill. Nor will words turn Republicans away from the unrelenting opposition they think will bring down the Democrats.

I watched the speech at the Candlelight, a bar taken over by the Santa Monica Democratic Club. The members’ reaction was a sampling of the party base—the voters Obama must rally to prevent electoral disaster.

At first they looked tense, no doubt shaken by his bad week. “I hope he inspires us,” said Jay Johnson. By the end of the speech, though, they were applauding frequently and looked almost ready to stream out of the Candlelight and convert some Republicans and independents—if they could find any in the solidly Democratic Southern California beachfront city of Santa Monica.

They cheered bank reform. They shouted “No!” when he said he wanted more nuclear power plants and “No, No!” after he talked of offshore oil drilling. Good applause for the climate bill. Big applause for repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Same with his pledge on health reform: “I will not walk away from these Americans, and neither should the people in this chamber.”

To mobilize the base, Obama will have to put America back to work. It will take much more than this speech to make it happen.

He gave too much credit to his stimulus plan, passed early last year and expected to create many jobs by now. He said, “… there are about 2 million Americans working right now who would otherwise be unemployed. ... And we are on track to add another one and a half million jobs to this total by the end of the year.”

This has not stopped unemployment from rising. The Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that unemployment increased last month in 43 states and the District of Columbia. It reached 11.8 percent in Florida, where Obama flew Wednesday to promote his jobs program. In California, it is 12.4 percent, causing Democrats to begin to worry about losing the gubernatorial election and the Senate seat held by Barbara Boxer.

The difficulty of converting the president’s words into action is shown by a study of the $18.5 billion allocated to California as its share of Obama’s $787 billion stimulus bill. California Watch, an investigative reporting project of the Center for Investigative Journalism, did the study.

More than 62,000 public education jobs—from college instructors to public school bus drivers—were saved by the injection of the stimulus funds. At the University of California alone, 8,356 jobs were saved, including 1,341 in academia. But this hasn’t stopped UC from imposing higher fees that will block many students from its campuses.

And the real job creation must come from manufacturing and construction companies, speedily receiving government contracts for tasks that will require large number of workers making and building things. This is how the economy began to revive during the Great Depression, when the unemployed went to work for construction companies on the great public works of the era. And it has to happen fast. The sight of people working on stimulus-financed jobs will hearten the country, just as happened in FDR’s day.
Obama’s program is taking too long, is too slow and is not creating enough work. A $285 million grant for wastewater facilities will produce just 285 jobs. A company building solar panels will receive a total of $535 million and create 118 jobs. Boeing is receiving a $15.9 million stimulus contract for environmental monitoring at a Southern California area where it was fined for polluting a creek with chromium, dioxin, lead and mercury, California Watch discovered. Eleven jobs will be created to clean up the mess Boeing made. It’s a good deal for the company but not the country.

More than $325 million is going to something called the California Tax Credit Committee. This money will be used for loans to developers to build low-income housing. No money has been spent, and the grant award document says there is no estimate of jobs to be created. None of this will happen until the developers get more financing and navigate a state and local government regulatory maze. The Obama administration is giving $226 million to the California State Energy Program to develop programs for green jobs, energy-efficient retrofitting and “program implementation and delivery.” Total jobs? One—a “staff program analyst specialist.”

It’s enough to deaden the enthusiasm of supportive activists like those at the Candlelight on Tuesday night. They are ready to work for Obama and to save Barbara Boxer’s Senate seat. The attitude is similar among Democrats in coming elections across the country.

But as I talked to members of the crowd at the bar afterward, one of them, Obama admirer Mikal Kamil, summed up the difficult situation facing the Democrats: “You can’t tell success by a speech. You have to see the performance.”
"In State of the Union address, President Obama put himself on the outside looking in" (Eugene Robinson-WaPo):
President Obama's State of the Union address didn't signal a political shift to the left or the right. It sounded more like a shrewd attempt to move from the inside to the outside -- to position himself alongside disaffected voters, peering through the windows of the den of iniquity called Washington and reacting with dismay at the depravity within.
In the course of a 70-minute speech, Obama slammed almost everybody in town. He even included a little self-deprecation and self-doubt -- "I know there are many Americans who aren't sure if they still believe we can change -- or that I can deliver it." But that followed a lengthy indictment of how Washington works, or doesn't work. It is a tribute to Obama's rhetorical gifts that the man at the center of our political system could position himself as an exasperated but hopeful outsider.

Unsurprisingly, the president called out the Republicans for being consistently obstructionist: "If the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town . . . then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership."

But he also called out the Democrats: "I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills."

He called out both parties at once, in a passage that was about reducing the deficit but could have applied to health care or just about any other issue: "Rather than fight the same tired battles that have dominated Washington for decades, it's time to try something new. Let's invest in our people without leaving them a mountain of debt. Let's meet our responsibility to the citizens who sent us here. Let's try common sense. A novel concept."

He called out the media: "The more that TV pundits reduce serious debates to silly arguments, and big issues into sound bites, our citizens turn away." Hmmm, who on Earth would do such a thing?

He even called out the Supreme Court, with six black-robed justices in attendance, for its recent ruling on campaign finance: "With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests -- including foreign corporations -- to spend without limit in our elections." With all due respect: some deference. Justice Samuel Alito should have been able to restrain himself from mouthing what appeared to be "Not true, not true," but he probably hadn't expected to find himself in a free-fire zone.

All of this excoriation, it looks to me, serves a political purpose. One obvious lesson from last summer's town-hall shoutfests, the rise of the Tea Party movement and the victory of pickup-truck-driving Scott Brown in the Massachusetts special election is that many voters are deeply alienated from Washington. Another lesson, especially from Brown's Senate win, is that the legions who were so enthralled by Obama's candidacy that they elected Democrats across the country are now unmotivated and perhaps disenchanted.

But polls show that Obama remains personally popular -- and that voters hold him less responsible for government dysfunction than either Republicans or Democrats in Congress. In Wednesday's speech, Obama used his campaign theme of "change" not just to reignite the fervor of disappointed supporters but also to speak to angry critics for whom "Washington" is an epithet not uttered in polite company.

No, he won't be able to appease the hard-core Tea Party crowd. But independent voters who are fed up with partisan gridlock heard the president invite Republicans to offer their ideas on health care, energy, education and other issues. I believe he may have succeeded at making it more difficult for Republicans to keep giving "no" as their all-purpose answer to anything the administration proposes. The president sounded reasonable and open; the opposition risks sounding truculent and Machiavellian.

Obama was at his most popular when he was seen as a different kind of politician, one who would speak harsh truths to friends as well as adversaries, one who offered not cynical calculation but unapologetic hope.

In his State of the Union speech, he sought once again to sound the themes -- and inhabit the persona -- of his remarkable campaign. He's been president for a year, but he sounded like an outsider again.

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