Newsweek revved us up for both the State of the Union address and the coming election campaign with two articles: Andrew Sullivan (January 16) tries to show how President Obama’s long game will outsmart his critics. When he took office the United States was losing 750,000 jobs a month. “Economies take time to shift course.” He says Obama continued the Bush bank bailout, initiated a bailout of the auto industry, and worked to pass the huge stimulus package of $787 billion. He has lowered taxes, reduced the deficit, and reversed Bush’s policy by going after Osama Ben Laden. A depression was averted. His process in foreign policy is slow and deliberative, but working.
David Frum (January 20), to prove that Obama’s policies are reorienting the public to depend on the federal government, says that applications for disability have risen steeply and so the Social Security Administration must hire more staff to take car of the needy. Obama, says Frum, is championing a more active government — which, in Frum’s values, is bad.
I watched the speech and hours of TV commentary, read the text and the New York Times, Washington Post and New York Post and Daily News editorials the next day. One poll of a focus group in Denver reports that Obama scored. Voters agree with his tax reform—that the one percent should shoulder a greater burden. To me the address was above all rational, balanced and compassionate. He states well that the “defining issue of our time” is how to keep alive the American dream: work hard, raise a family, buy a house, send your kids to college and put a little away for retirement. But the evidence is that standard American Romney capitalism, redesigned under the Reagan-Bush administrations, sucks the money up into the already rich top one percent of the population. “Folks at the top saw their incomes rise as never before,” says Obama, and the paychecks of the workers were left behind.
But in my limited space I register three disappointments.
(1) The emphasis on the middle class, who are more likely to vote, leaves out the bigger problem of the lower classes. Specifically the inner-city black population where the crime rate is high, where young men drop out of high school to sell drugs, where men sire children from women with whom they have no permanent, responsible relationship. Whole generations of young men and women are going down the drain or into prison because of lack of opportunity. Too many men in particular are untrained for the work force and ill-equipped to marry and support a family; and the young mothers must call upon the grandmothers to be the home-builders. Of course, we say, Obama cannot talk about this—although he has often touched upon it—lest he fall into the role of the “black” president from Kenya.
(2) He talks about gratitude for our soldiers’ sacrifices and also about the need to bolster higher education. The post-WWII GI Bill of Rights saved a whole generation of young men—and universities as well—by sending them all to college at government expense. There is no comparable support for veterans today. Every returning veteran of the Iraq or Afghanistan war should receive a full-tuition scholarship to whatever college accepts him or her.
(3) The President’s framing of his address—starting with the return of the troops from Iraq and climaxing with the Navy Seals’ expedition into Pakistan to get Ben Laden—was to illustrate the virtues of teamwork, as exemplified by one soldier’s absolute dependence on his comrades to make the mission succeed. He’s right on the principle of mutual dependence in a military unit. He may have heard it from his grandfather in Patton’s army; I heard it from my father, a World War I veteran, when I went on active duty in the artillery after college. If Congress could put aside its differences and work for a common goal the way soldiers do, he says, America could solve it problems.
That’s true. But in goals and structure, the military and Congress are very different institutions. Congress is not subject to military obedience and its members often see themselves as representing not the common good but their immediate constituencies—banks, corporations, death penalty devotees, gun owners who see pistols as extensions of their own personalities, oil companies, and wealthy contributors who would allow no cap on their billion-dollar fortunes. Sometimes these interests cannot be moved by rhetoric, reason, compassion. They must be fought.
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.