What Obama Will (And Won’t) Say Tonight

President Obama delivers his annual State of the Union (SOTU) speech to Congress tonight. Unlike previous presidents, he and his aides have leaked what he’ll propose. Thus, we won’t be surprised by what we hear, just stuff that has zero chance of passing this GOP-controlled Congress. What’s he up to?

Before I answer that question, let’s briefly look at his upcoming proposals. The Atlantic summarizes them thusly: “The theme of the speech will be middle-class economics. The centerpiece is a tax cut for working families that would be paid for with higher taxes on investments and inheritances for the wealthy.” The two main goodies for struggling middle-class families are (1) free community college, and (2) more paid sick leave.

None of this is earthshaking. It’s chipping around the edges. But that’s immaterial, because it won’t be enacted anyway, and you must view it in the context of being a sop to a frustrated middle class that wasn’t bailed out as the banks and financiers were, and which has seen its prosperity and economic security steadily erode away, like a sandbank collapsing under the onslaught of lapping waves.

The function of these dead-on-arrival proposals is twofold. First and foremost, to force Hillary Clinton to be a pseudo-populist like him. (Or, as David Frum in The Atlantic puts it, to “box” her in.) She doesn’t want to be. Obama doesn’t want her to have a choice. And second, to paint Republicans into a corner and set them up for defeat in 2016, ensuring that pseudo-populist Obama is succeeded by pseudo-populist Clinton, and not by a retrograde like _____________ (fill in blank with your preferred Republican). In other words, it’s all about politics.

Hillary wants to be pro-business. Obama wants to steer her in the direction of pro-peasant, kind of an Elizabeth Warren-lite. He hasn’t been much of a progressive in office, so he at least wants to look like one on his way out. Maybe it’s a legacy thing, or just practical politics, or some of both.

Meanwhile, Hillary doesn’t even want to admit she’s running for president, though she obviously is, much less tell anyone what kind of president she’ll be. (And she will be our next president, barring some sort of political tectonic plate shift, or a health problem).

We sort of know. Pro-business, pretty conservative (for a Democrat), unwilling to lock horns with the bankers and financiers. (Someone, after all, has to pay for her campaign.) The kind of president who, instead of reinvigorating middle class prosperity, will apply a little superglue to its broken shards with marginal proposals like measly and targeted tax cuts.

She’ll be succeeding a president whose greatest accomplishments, from a historical viewpoint, consist of what he wasn’t and what he didn’t do. He wasn’t a Republican, and he didn’t adopt austerity policies. Thanks to those two facts, we’re not mired in recession, high unemployment, and deflation like Europe.

Every American should be grateful that Obama, not McCain or Romney, sat in that office and made the crucial decisions that easily could have tipped us into another Great Depression; instead, he made the right decisions that put us on the path to recovery. It’s been a frustratingly sluggish recovery, especially for unemployed and hungry jobseekers, but it’s a recovery. America’s economy today, although it leaves much to be desired, is doing better than any other major economy in the world. That’s no small thing. He was right, the Republicans were wrong. The electorate rewarded him, and themselves, by giving both houses of Congress to the Republicans.

The Republicans also were mean and evil; if they’d gotten their way, there would have been no stimulus, resulting in even more job losses, and no extended unemployment benefits and only the most penurious funding for food stamps. The Republican answer to the Great Recession was let ’em starve. So keeping them out of office was no small thing, either.

Choosing middle-class economics as his SOTU theme is important, of course, albeit a no-brainer. He could talk about foreign policy, why we have to fight ISIS and why terrorism is still an active threat, and so on. In fact, he will, but foreign policy won’t be the speech’s theme. As The Atlantic puts it, “Foreign policy will necessarily take up a good chunk of Obama’s speech. After global crises dominated headlines in 2014, how could it not? Nonetheless, expect the president to devote the heart of his address to the economy.”

Or, on the domestic front, he could talk about reforming Social Security and Medicare, or the tax code. And who knows, these topics may get a passing mention, although they’re apparently not going to be the object of any major or serious proposals in tonight’s speech. Which is okay, I guess. Given a Republican Congress, it’s probably the better part of valor to not poke a stick at those things. We don’t want this Congress to think about them, because no good could possibly come of that.

The average middle class income in the U.S. has declined 4% since Obama took office. Mainly for reasons totally beyond his control. After all, he inherited from his Republican predecessor the worst economic mess since the Depression. But the peasants are growing impatient. They feel everything should be fixed by now, no matter how unrealistic that is, and voters have a strong tendency to take out their frustrations on the incumbent president and his party, no matter how unfair or counterproductive that is. They gave Congress to the Republicans because they’re in pain and want someone to “do something.”

I have a feeling tonight’s speech won’t be much of a pain pill. It’ll contain admiring paeans to the hardworking and long-suffering middle class, but no real answer to the powerful economic forces that have shifted pie slices away from workers to owners of capital even as the economy grows in nominal and real terms. That’s because the Democrats don’t have one, which is their fundamental problem.

The Republicans, at least, can assert that their program of coddling the rich with tax cuts and relaxed regulation will create jobs. That’s a lie, but it sounds logical, so many voters fall for it; and the GOP hopes to parlay that into the effective control of our government they enjoyed during parts of the Reagan and Bush-43 eras, so they can keep on ignoring the struggles of the working classes.

What it boils down to is that neither party has a grand solution for what most Americans are worried and fretting about. The forces reshaping the global and domestic economies are very big and powerful. In the short term, globalization and technology have clobbered the middle-class. See this article:

In the longer term, those forces will clobber the middle-class even worse. If you think things are bad now, it’s only beginning. Ultimately, someday human labor will become superfluous, because computers can operate factory machinery, fly planes and drive trains, and give medical and legal advice more accurately and efficiently than humans can. And they don’t have to be paid, given vacation and sick leave, or health and retirement benefits. Most humans are destined to become useless.

That’s the fundamental political, economic, and social dilemma facing us, and you won’t hear anyone talk about it tonight. About all you’ll hear this evening, if you bother to listen — and millions of people won’t — is partisan posturing ahead of the 2016 elections. If you’re a political junkie, you might find it interesting. Most of us won’t.Roger-Rabbit-icon1

One more thing: The GOP chose Joni Ernst to deliver its rebuttal. Expect to hear well-polished platitudes from her, delivered like a slick preacher giving a Sunday sermon, about how prosperous we’d all be if only our entrepreneurial spirits were unshackled from the oppressive chains of Big Government, high taxes, and job-killing regulation.

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