State of the Union addresses have become a real life version of land of the living dead. They are rituals that have little to do with the state of the union or actions needed to improve it. They are 40 plus minute laundry list of actions that the President wants accomplished that rarely set major priorities or that get implemented. There is no reason to expect anything different this year.
As Peggy Noonan wrote in a recent column, “No one’s really listening to the president now. He has been for five years a nonstop wind-up talk machine. Most of it has been facile, bland, the same rounded words and rounded sentiments, the same soft accusations and excuses.” She went on to say that the reason is that his signature achievement, Obamacare, was poorly conceived, “disastrously executed” and based on a “giant lie”. That is a harsh indictment but the President’s poll numbers give it credence. His favorability rating is embarrassingly low, he is not trusted, and the White House is seen as incompetent. Why should anyone listen or believe that he will back up his words with actual executive leadership?
Successful CEOs have a small set of priorities and focus their energy on achieving them. Ronald Reagan focused on rebuilding the economy, reducing red tape, lowering taxes and besting the Soviet Union. The rest was left to the bureaucracy. President Obama, if he has any hope of salvaging his second term and presidency, should do likewise. He should set his sights on a few major goals and pursue them with excellence. Restoring faith in government should be the primary one.
Although economic growth in the third quarter was strong, most analysts attribute it to rebuilding of inventories. The stock market this month is not showing confidence in a strong 2014. Unemployment is too high, too many people have given up looking for jobs, the labor participation rate is at a historic low, consumer confidence is too low, too much capital remains on the side lines, and government is dysfunctional.
Remarks about minimum wage, income inequality and the like will miss the mark of what is needed to get the economy moving again. As James Carville famously told Bill Clinton, “it’s the economy stupid.” Any agenda that does not begin and end with a commitment to real economic growth is simply empty rhetoric. Issues dealing with climbing the economic ladder are well known and so are the actions needed to achieve them. Most are beyond the President’s sphere of influence, especially this late in his presidency.
The US economy has benefitted from a boom in oil and gas. That has led to lower prices, good jobs, and valuable trade opportunities. While the President acknowledges these on the one hand, he continues to push uneconomic and technologically impractical “green”, alternative energy systems. Just 3 years ago, he called for a program to achieve 80% of our electrical power from alternative sources by 2035. A pipe dream then and even more of one know.
Instead of embracing the oil and gas boom and unleashing its potential to make a strong contribution to economic growth, his actions do just the opposite. He is slow walking the potential for improved trade by allowing oil and gas exports, he is doing worse than slow walking the upper tier of Keystone XL, and his EPA is pushing extreme regulations that will have disastrous economic consequences all in the name of climate change.
As the nation observes the 17th year without an increase in warming and scientists begin to admit that they can’t explain why and that the models that they relied on are flawed, the nation has even less reason to listen to what the President says or considerate more than just partisan, ideological, political rhetoric. That is a very sad commentary not just about the President but about the state of our political system.
Ideology on the left and right and the harsh indictments of those who don’t subscribe to a particular ideology have replaced real public service and a commitment to find common ground in solving problems that justify attention at the national level. If the President could begin a serious process to promote common ground, his presidency might be salvaged. That won’t happen in an election year where the Senate hangs in the balance but the process has to start somewhere.
This article appeared on the National Journal’s Energy Insiders weblog.