The State of Speechmaking about the State of the Union

Last night’s State of the Union address was replete with platitudes, buzzwords, lame rhetorical tricks, and the same old same old. There was nothing, new, path-breaking or consequential that came out of it. Given former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’s admission that President Obama “stopped trying to change Washington years ago,” I suppose that none of this should come as any surprise, although we are left to wonder why we should have elected and re-elected a president who promised us Change We Can Believe In if he “long ago” decided to give up on delivering that change to the rest of us.

My reply to the State of the Union will not involve any kind of paragraph-by-paragraph fisking; life is too short and the State of the Union was far too tedious for that sort of treatment. But there were some sections of the speech that ought to be singled out for particular attention and discussion.

Consider, first of all, the following:

But what I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still, and neither will I. (Applause.) So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do. (Cheers, applause.)

This is one of the sections in the speech in which the president stated that he would use executive authority to bypass Congress. The president certainly has that power, but as I have written before, if a Republican president said this kind of thing, legions of television and print commentators–not to mention port-side bloggers–would be complaining about the advent of a new imperial presidency.

We know where to start. The best measure of opportunity is access to a good job. With the economy picking up speed, companies say they intend to hire more people this year.

And over half of big manufacturers say they’re thinking of insourcing jobs from abroad. (Applause.)

So let’s make that decision easier for more companies. Both Democrats and Republicans have argued that our tax code is riddled with wasteful, complicated loopholes that punish businesses investing here, and reward companies that keep profits abroad. Let’s flip that equation. Let’s work together to close those loopholes, end those incentives to ship jobs overseas, and lower tax rates for businesses that create jobs right here at home. (Cheers, applause.)

It is nice to see that at long last, the president has come to terms with the fact that outsourcing occurs when there is an economic incentive to outsource, and that the best way to stop outsourcing is to give companies in the United States economic incentives to keep jobs in the United States. In the past, the president and his supporters have attacked outsourcers and have claimed that they are something akin to economic traitors, so I will take progress where I can get it. Of course, as anyone who knows anything about outsourcing is aware, outsourcing makes up an exceedingly tiny percentage of jobs lost, so one continues to wonder why politicians make a big deal about the issue. But there you have it; outsourcing will remain the non-threat to the American economy that everyone likes to harp about, and I must confess that it was depressing to see the president continue the trend.

Now, one of the biggest factors in bringing more jobs back is our commitment to American energy. The “all the above” energy strategy I announced a few years ago is working, and today America is closer to energy independence than we have been in decades. (Applause.)

One of the reasons why is natural gas. If extracted safely, it’s the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change. (Applause.) Businesses plan to invest almost a hundred billion dollars in new factories that use natural gas. I’ll cut red tape to help states get those factories built and put folks to work, and this Congress can help by putting people to work building fueling stations that shift more cars and trucks from foreign oil to American natural gas. (Applause.)

It would have been nice if, at this point, the president pointed out that we would not have huge natural gas reserves if his allies had succeeded in their opposition to fracking, but he chose to pass up that opportunity. Speaking truth to his allie has never been this president’s strong suit, to be sure, so again, this omission should surprise precisely no one, but it is disappointing to see that after five years in office, the president still can’t take his allies to task when they are clearly in the wrong.

Now, it’s not just oil and natural gas production that’s booming; we’re becoming a global leader in solar too.

Every four minutes another American home or business goes solar, every panel pounded into place by a worker whose job can’t be outsourced. Let’s continue that progress with a smarter tax policy that stops giving $4 billion a year to fossil fuel industries that don’t need it so we can invest more in fuels of the future that do. (Cheers, applause.)

Reading this passage, one might be forgiven for thinking that our ability to transition from fossil fuels to solar energy is right around the corner. It is not. We are decades away from being able to do so, and reversing a $4 billion tax break isn’t going to speed up the process. I take second place to no one in my opposition to corporate welfare, but it is worth noting that when it comes to finding and drilling for oil, exploration costs are significant and consequential; yet another fact that the president failed to mention in his discussion on the issue.

Finally, if we’re serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, law enforcement — and fix our broken immigration system. (Cheers, applause.) Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted, and I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same. Independent economists say immigration reform will grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades. And for good reason: When people come here to fulfill their dreams — to study, invent, contribute to our culture — they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everybody. So let’s get immigration reform done this year. (Cheers, applause.) Let’s get it done. It’s time.

As a child of immigrants, I am glad to see that the president continues to push for immigration reform. Having smart, hardworking people come to this country in search of a better life, and with the tools and motivation to give something back to the country in return is one of the best ways to keep America vibrant, powerful and prosperous. And yes, our immigration policies are a mess, and it is time to clean it up; it is nice to see that Republicans are coming around to that point of view as well. But it is important to note that as with a host of other legislative proposals from the Obama White House, the president has hardly done anything to take the lead on this issue. Periodically, he comes out in favor of immigration reform, scolds members of Congress for not having taken up the issue, and then retires back to the sidelines, having achieved nothing. This isn’t even “leading from behind,” the favorite buzzphrase Team Obama likes to use when the president and his cohorts are busy doing nothing whatsoever. This is just a spectacular failure to lead that can’t be dressed up and made to look pretty by any objective observer.

So tonight, I’ve asked Vice President Biden to lead an across- the-board reform of America’s training programs to make sure they have one mission: train Americans with the skills employers need, and match them to good jobs that need to be filled right now. (Cheers, applause.) That means more on-the-job training, and more apprenticeships that set a young worker on an upward trajectory for life. It means connecting companies to community colleges that can help design training to fill their specific needs. And if Congress wants to help, you can concentrate funding on proven programs that connect more ready-to-work Americans with ready-to-be-filled jobs.

Joe Biden is going to tell job-training programs that their job is to train Americans to get jobs. Presumably, this was the part when the citizenry was supposed to rise to its collective feet and scream “Hallelujah, our problems are solved!”

You know, today, women make up about half our workforce, but they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment.

Women deserve equal pay for equal work. (Cheers, applause.)

You know, she deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. (Cheers, applause.) A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship. (Applause.) And you know what, a father does too. It is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a “Mad Men” episode. (Laughter, cheers, applause.) This year let’s all come together, Congress, the White House, businesses from Wall Street to Main Street, to give every woman the opportunity she deserves, because I believe when women succeed, America succeeds. (Cheers, applause.)

Let’s turn the microphone over to Glenn Kessler, whose fact check you ought to read in full:

There is clearly a wage gap, but differences in the life choices of men and women — such as women tending to leave the workforce when they have children — make it difficult to make simple comparisons.

Obama is using a figure (annual wages, from the Census Bureau) that makes the disparity appear the greatest. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, for instance, shows that the gap is 19 cents when looking at weekly wages. The gap is even smaller when you look at hourly wages — it is 14 cents — but then not every wage earner is paid on an hourly basis, so that statistic excludes salaried workers.

In other words, since women in general work fewer hours than men in a year, the statistics used by the White House may be less reliable for examining the key focus of legislation pending in Congress — wage discrimination. The weekly wage is more of an apples-to-apples comparison, but it does not include as many income categories.

Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis surveyed economic literature and concluded that “research suggests that the actual gender wage gap (when female workers are compared with male workers who have similar characteristics) is much lower than the raw wage gap.” They cited one survey, prepared for the Labor Department, which concluded that when such differences are accounted for, much of the hourly wage gap dwindled, to about 5 cents on the dollar.

Facts are stubborn things, but don’t tell that to the Obama administration. They are busy thinking that no matter what Abraham Lincoln might have said, it is entirely possible to fool all of the people, all of the time.

Now, women hold a majority of lower-wage jobs, but they’re not the only ones stifled by stagnant wages. Americans understand that some people will earn more money than others, and we don’t resent those who, by virtue of their efforts, achieve incredible success. That’s what America’s all about. But Americans overwhelmingly agree that no one who works full-time should ever have to raise a family in poverty. (Applause.)

In the year since I asked this Congress to raise the minimum wage, five states have passed laws to raise theirs.

Many businesses have done it on their own. Nick Chute is here today with his boss, John Soranno. John’s an owner of Punch Pizza in Minneapolis, and Nick helps make the dough. (Laughter.) Only now he makes more of it. (Laughter.) John just gave his employees a raise to 10 bucks an hour, and that’s a decision that has eased their financial stress and boosted their morale.

Tonight I ask more of America’s business leaders to follow John’s lead. Do what you can to raise your employees’ wages. (Applause.) It’s good for the economy; it’s good for America. (Sustained applause.)

The president of the United States saw fit to devote a portion of his address to Congress, and to the American people to tell business leaders and executives how they should structure their payrolls. Please, let’s never again have anyone tell us that this administration does not believe in big, overwhelming, overpowering, nannyish, intrusive government.

To every mayor, governor, state legislator in America, I say, you don’t have to wait for Congress to act; Americans will support you if you take this on. And as a chief executive, I intend to lead by example. Profitable corporations like Costco see higher wages as the smart way to boost productivity and reduce turnover. We should too. In the coming weeks I will issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour because if you cook — (cheers, applause) — our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you should not have to live in poverty. (Sustained applause.)

There’s that imperial presidency again, which much of our pundit class does not call an imperial presidency because a Democrat is the current imperial president.

Of course, to reach millions more, Congress does need to get on board.

Today the federal minimum wage is worth about twenty percent less than it was when Ronald Reagan first stood here. And Tom Harkin and George Miller have a bill to fix that by lifting the minimum wage to $10.10. It’s easy to remember: 10.10. This will help families. It will give businesses customers with more money to spend. It does not involve any new bureaucratic program. So join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise. (Cheers, applause.) Give ’em a raise.

This is the part where I point out–again–that the Earned Income Tax Credit does more than the minimum wage ever could in order to fight poverty. To be fair, after the above excerpt, the president immediately transitioned to a call to strengthen the credit, but Truth would have been better served if the president told Congress that focusing any attention whatsoever on the minimum wage was a waste of time, and that the EITC should receive the whole of legislative attention if we want to successfully help the working poor instead of just talking about helping the working poor.

One last point on financial security. For decades, few things exposed hard-working families to economic hardship more than a broken health care system. And in case you haven’t heard, we’re in the process of fixing that. (Scattered laughter, applause.)

Now — a pre-existing condition used to mean that someone like Amanda Shelley, a physician’s assistant and single mom from Arizona, couldn’t get health insurance. But on January 1st, she got covered. (Applause.) On January 3rd, she felt a sharp pain. On January 6th, she had emergency surgery. Just one week earlier, Amanda said, that surgery would’ve meant bankruptcy. That’s what health insurance reform is all about, the peace of mind that if misfortune strikes, you don’t have to lose everything.

Already, because of the Affordable Care Act, more than 3 million Americans under age 26 have gained coverage under their parents’ plans. (Applause.)

More than 9 million Americans have signed up for private health insurance or Medicaid coverage — 9 million. (Applause.)

And here’s another number: zero. Because of this law, no American, none, zero, can ever again be dropped or denied coverage for a pre-existing condition like asthma or back pain or cancer. (Cheers, applause.) No woman can ever be charged more just because she’s a woman. (Cheers, applause.) And we did all this while adding years to Medicare’s finances, keeping Medicare premiums flat and lowering prescription costs for millions of seniors.

Now, I do not expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law. (Laughter.) (Chuckles.) (Laughter.) But I know that the American people are not interested in refighting old battles. So again, if you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, increase choice, tell America what you’d do differently. Let’s see if the numbers add up. (Applause.) But let’s not have another 40- something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans like Amanda.

(Cheers, applause.) The first 40 were plenty. We all owe it to the American people to say what we’re for, not just what we’re against.

The one or two Americans left who had no idea what the purpose of health insurance is can thank the president for explaining the basics in this portion of his speech. The rest of us are left wondering why the president did not see fit to admit to–and apologize for–the many problems that affected signing up for Obamacare. Problems that are continuing, by the way; apparently, the designers of Obamacare have made it difficult for children to be included on family plans. This might come as a surprise to some people, especially those who have heard the Obama administration boast over, and over (and over) about the fact that under Obamacare, kids can stay on their parents health care plans until they reach the age of twenty-six. Ah, but those people don’t seem to fully appreciate the Obama administration’s ability to hide bad news. For Heaven’s sake, there wasn’t even any mention by the president that thanks to Obamacare, Senator Tom Coburn lost his oncologist. If that doesn’t convince you that this administration is determined to keep inconvenient facts away from the attention of the American people, nothing will.

Relatedly, there appears to be depressingly little commentary regarding the Obama administration’s ability to pretend that Republican proposals to fix Obamacare simply do not exist. There is, in fact, an Obamacare alternative that exists in the Senate; it has been written about by both Yuval Levin, and Patrick Brennan. Given that the president called for Republican alternatives to Obamacare instead of just having votes to repeal it, one might have thought that he would have mentioned these alternatives and promised to explore them alongside Republicans in a fit of bipartisan cooperation. No such luck. Incidentally, how many pundits and TV talking heads even know about these plans, and betrayed such knowledge in their discussion of the State of the Union address? And if they did know of these plans, how many bothered to bring them up during the course of discussion? Not many, I bet.

As usual, foreign policy and national security got the short end of the stick in this president’s State of the Union address. Yes, I know that domestic policy has to be talked about first, since that is what voters care about the most, but when it comes to analyzing the president’s foreign policy discussion, one cannot help but be depressed.

Tonight, because of the extraordinary troops and civilians who risk and lay down their lives to keep us free, the United States is more secure. When I took office, nearly 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, all our troops are out of Iraq. More than 60,000 of our troops have already come home from Afghanistan. With Afghan forces now in the lead for their own security, our troops have moved to a support role. Together with our allies, we will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America’s longest war will finally be over. (Applause.)

After 2014, we will support a unified Afghanistan as it takes responsibility for its own future.

If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al-Qaida. For while our relationship with Afghanistan will change, one thing will not: our resolve that terrorists do not launch attacks against our country. (Applause.)

The paean to our troops is appreciated and deserved, but contrary to the president’s pretty words, Afghanistan policy is a mess. Evan Moore’s words are worth noting as well:

During his State of the Union address Tuesday evening, President Obama said very little that was new on foreign policy. That is unfortunate because, in his sixth year in office, many of his foreign policy choices are having disconcerting repercussions that he likely did not anticipate. Time still remains for the commander in chief to change course, but doing so will require that he adopt a new national security agenda.

In Afghanistan, President Obama is considering a plan to leave 10,000 troops in place beyond the full transfer of responsibility for security to Kabul at the end of this year. However, these few follow-on forces could reportedly draw down to near zero by the end of 2016. While 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan are better than none at all, the Institute for the Study of War concluded in a study last year that it will require roughly triple that number to effectively carry out the president’s plans to conduct counter-terrorism operations and train the Afghan security forces.

Leaving too small a residual force of U.S. troops — or completely withdrawing — risks overturning the military, economic and political gains that the United States, the NATO-led coalition and Afghanistan have won over the past 12 years. As Obama said, the danger still remains that terrorists in Afghanistan could launch attacks against the United States. Unfortunately, the commander-in-chief missed an opportunity to further detail that danger to the American people when he stated:

If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al Qaeda. For while our relationship with Afghanistan will change, one thing will not: our resolve that terrorists do not launch attacks against our country.

The present situation in Iraq illustrates the risks of withdrawal. After U.S. forces left Iraq at the end of 2011, the United States lost its influence over Iraqi politics. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki then proceeded to accrue more power for himself and shut out his political opponents. Now, al-Qaida’s forces in Iraq have resurrected themselves, and 2013 was the most violent year in Iraq since 2008.

It is perhaps worth mentioning as well that for the umpteenth time, the president called for the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, without telling us how we should do it, or what alternative we should use. I don’t see what is wrong with keeping the prison open as long as we do not engage in torture; having a prison at Guantanamo Bay is not per se bad–it is the activities that go on at the prison that should inform our moral judgment, not the fact that the prison itself is open. Of course, ever since the Democratic primaries and caucuses back in 2008 (ah, to be young again), Barack Obama has been telling us that he would close the prison at Guantanamo; yet another promise that this president did not get around to fulfilling.

American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated. (Applause.) And we will continue to work with the international community to usher in the future the Syrian people deserve — a future free of dictatorship, terror and fear.

Um . . . no:

Syria has given up less than five percent of its chemical weapons arsenal and will miss next week’s deadline to send all toxic agents abroad for destruction, sources familiar with the matter said on Wednesday.

The deliveries, in two shipments this month to the northern Syrian port of Latakia totaled 4.1 percent of the roughly 1433 metric tons of toxic agents reported by Damascus to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“It’s not enough and there is no sign of more,” one source briefed on the situation said.

The internationally backed operation, overseen by a joint OPCW-United Nations mission, is now 6-8 weeks behind schedule. Damascus needs to show it is still serious about relinquishing its chemical weapons, the sources told Reuters.

So much for claims regarding progress in Syria. Heads of fact checkers should have exploded at the president’s insistence that all was going well concerning the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. And if fact checkers did not in fact go into overdrive correcting the president’s remarks on the issue, the I have to wonder how it is that they got jobs as fact checkers in the first place.

And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program — and rolled back parts of that program — for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium.

It’s not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. (Applause.)

Let us please stop pretending that the deal with Iran is working out well. And let’s give the microphone back to Evan Moore for additional commentary regarding the issue:

In Iran, the Obama administration has substituted a diplomatic process for a sound policy. The president’s claim that American diplomacy “has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program – and rolled parts of that program back – for the very first time in a decade” is belied by the actual details of the agreement. As Christopher Griffin and Robert Zarate of the Foreign Policy Initiative observed, the deal:

does not require Iran to dismantle a single centrifuge for uranium enrichment, ship abroad a single kilogram of uranium, start dismantling its plutonium-producing heavy water reactor at Arak, or to stop stonewalling international investigations into its nuclear program’s potential military dimensions.

A recent study by the Institute for Science and International Security concluded that, to ensure the Islamic Republic does not have a capability to produce nuclear weapons on alarmingly short notice, Tehran would have to remove 15,000 enrichment centrifuges and permit a 20-year regime of intrusive inspections. However, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that Iran will not dismantle any centrifuges “under any circumstances.” In a telling remark, Zakaria subsequently characterized Rouhani’s position on centrifuge dismantlement as a “train wreck.”

There was a very good part of the speech. It is as follows:

I first met Cory Remsburg, a proud Army Ranger, at Omaha Beach on the 65th anniversary of D-Day. Along with some of his fellow Rangers, he walked me through the program, the ceremony. He was a strong, impressive young man, had an easy manner. He was sharp as a tack. And we joked around, and took pictures, and I told him to stay in touch.

A few months later, on his 10th deployment, Cory was nearly killed by a massive roadside bomb in Afghanistan. His comrades found him in a canal, face down, underwater, shrapnel in his brain.

For months, he lay in a coma. And the next time I met him, in the hospital, he couldn’t speak; he could barely move. Over the years, he’s endured dozens of surgeries and procedures, hours of grueling rehab every day.

Even now, Cory is still blind in one eye. He still struggles on his left side. But slowly, steadily, with the support of caregivers like his dad Craig, and the community around him, Cory has grown stronger. Day by day, he’s learned to speak again and stand again and walk again, and he’s working toward the day when he can serve his country again.

“My recovery has not been easy,” he says. “Nothing in life that’s worth anything is easy.”

Cory is here tonight. And like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit. (Cheers, applause.) Cory. (Extended cheers and applause.)

Fine words. Finely delivered. And of course, the media went ahead and butchered them in commentary. Readers, this is the part where one puts one’s face in one’s hands and weeps copiously for the state of American journalism.

John Podhoretz was, justifiably, less than impressed:

State of the Union speeches are usually lousy, but for the hour of Barack Obama’s fifth, it seemed like he had lowered the annual presidential laundry list of half-baked policy proposals tradition to its nadir.

This was the most plodding, enervated and pointless national address of his presidency, and easily the worst and least consequential since the elder George Bush’s in 1992.

That is, until its heartrending and ennobling concluding passage, when the President took beautiful note of the extraordinary sacrifices and challenges faced by Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg, an American soldier nearly killed in Afghanistan on his tenth — his tenth — deployment into a war zone.

In the moment when the assembled Congress and Cabinet and guests stood and applauded Remsburg, and the wounded soldier began to shake with emotion, one had a thrilling momentary rush of that feeling in the months after 9/11 when the nation seemed to possess a unity of national spirit for the first time since World War II.

And then, as quickly as it came, the feeling was gone. The president wrapped up with a weak effort to liken Remsburg’s refusal to give up with America’s refusal to give up, or something like that. “Believe it,” he said, and that was it.

Believe what, exactly?

If you needed further evidence that the Obama administration is running on fumes, last night was it.

People generally dismiss the sorts of unambitious proposals the president threw around for most of the speech as “playing smallball.” This was more like nanoball.

More fact-checking here. Ron Fournier points out that “[w]ords are no longer enough,” and that “Obama has not executed; he has not found a way to overcome his era’s obstacles and fulfill his potential for greatness. It may be too late to learn how.”

Remind me: Why did we bother to re-elect this guy again?

Incidentally, I am not going to even bother discussing the Republican response, because it was hardly substantive, and because there are limits to my masochism.