Osama bin Laden shouldn’t be the only man capable of getting Democrats and Republicans to work together. In so many words, that was the message of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last night, and the point is valid if cliched: A call for bipartisanship, like the choice of adjective for the state of the union (“strong,” as usual), is pretty much a requirement for these speeches.
Obama’s 65-minute address began and ended with references to the U.S. military’s killing of bin Laden. In between was a grab bag of programs and proposals that would require Congress and the president to “work together” -- a phrase or variation thereof that the president used five times. At least he didn’t pretend this was likely, acknowledging that most Americans believe “nothing will get done in Washington this year, or next year, or maybe even the year after that, because Washington is broken.”
Obama’s ideas for fixing Washington aren’t necessarily bad, such as requiring that all judicial nominees receive an up-or-down vote in the Senate within 90 days. But they raise a chicken-egg problem. Congressional reform is necessary to eliminate congressional gridlock, but congressional gridlock is what prevents congressional reform. And congressional gridlock is a function of partisanship as much as process.
This is, the president mentioned in passing last night without his audience needing a reminder, an election year. So partisanship isn’t likely to diminish as November approaches. Factor in Republican control of the House, and Obama’s agenda is even less relevant than usual.
All the same, it has some items to recommend it. Obama’s proposal to allow foreign-born entrepreneurs and students to stay in the U.S., for example, would help the economy. Comprehensive immigration reform is probably not going to happen this year, but maybe this piece is feasible. The president also called for taxing at a minimum rate of 30 percent the people who make more than $1 million a year. This is the so-called “Buffett rule,” named for the billionaire investor who pays a lower rate than his secretary, who just happened to be sitting in the first lady’s box last night.
Other proposals were disappointing, misguided, or just plain nonsensical. There was precious little about deficit reduction in this speech. While calling for tax reform, the president also proposed complicating the tax code with credits and incentives for clean energy, tuition, veterans and various manufacturers (and there may be a few we missed). His rhetoric about China -- he bragged about stopping “a surge in Chinese tires,” as if it were part of the North Pacific Drift -- was simplistic and has the whiff of protectionism. After declaiming the need to rescue the U.S. auto industry, he declared that the federal government should offer “no bailouts, no handouts.”
Maybe it’s too much to expect a speech like this, especially in an election year, to be logically coherent or ideologically consistent. In that case, what such speeches have to offer is a sense of possibility and, not to put too fine a point on it, partisanship: The president, it is usually noted at this point, is both head of state and leader of the party. Obama is a talented speaker and skillfully alternated between pointed warnings about class warfare and gauzy calls for shared responsibility.
Which brings us back to the killing of Osama bin Laden. In the speech, Obama used the raid to show what U.S. troops could achieve when they “worked as a team.” Speaking to 535 members of Congress, he didn’t need to elaborate.
Two points about that. The first is that it is easier for a president to coordinate foreign policy than domestic, and the Obama administration has had some notable successes abroad: Not just the killing of bin Laden, but overseeing the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya; managing the international isolation of Iran; ending the U.S. presence in Iraq; and, in general, focusing more attention on Asia.
The second point, and one to be grateful for, is that there was only one Osama bin Laden. Americans may have disagreed about the purpose and prosecution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but about bin Laden they were as close to unanimous as Americans get: He was responsible for 9/11.
There is no such consensus about the causes of, or responsibility for, the Great Recession. This partly explains the political gridlock in Washington, but it also hints at a way out. Some of Obama’s proposals make sense regardless of where you assign blame for our current crisis. Others require a more thorough presentation of the case. A few are nonstarters. This is the debate Republicans have been having for months, and that the president joined last night.
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