To put us on solid ground, we should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations. And we must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans' guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.
He's leaving the door open to adopting some of the recommendations of the Catfood Commission (or rather, by its members; the Commission itself didn't make an official report). The solution is easy: raise the cap on income taxed for SSDI (the Social Security payroll tax). We'll have to see what he comes up with. At least what he said didn't condemn the Democratic Party to electoral disaster for years to come.
But this also came in the section about his speech about his willingness to make deals with the Republicans to lower the non-problem of the deficit. The fight over Social Security isn't over.
The State of the Union (SOTU) address has become a pageant to the Imperial Presidency, far more spectacle than substance. In this very limited sense, I agree with cranky old George Will who was grumping on ABC's This Week on Sunday that the Supreme Court Justices shouldn't even attend. Here's the quote:
And it becomes a political pep rally, to use the phrase of Chief Justice Roberts last year. If it's going to be a pep rally, with the president's supporters or whatever party standing up and braying approval, and histrionic pouting on the part of the other, then it's no place for the judiciary, it's no place for the uniformed military, and it's no place for non-adolescent legislators.
Will's point seemed to be, though, that it was a partisan political event, which it's not. Since the Constitution requires Obama to deliver an annual message to Congress - though many Presidents did it in writing, not in person - it's an event where the President's multiple roles as head of state, head of government and head of his Party are all on display. Congress can hardly refuse a request by the President to address a Joint Session of Congress.
I also think the uniformed generals shouldn't be there. But not for Will's reason. Having them as official guests symbolically puts them on a level with the Cabinet, the Congress and the Supreme Court. In practice, they have far too much influence on democratic politics. But in our Constitutional system, they are not of equal importance to our system of government as the elected officials, the Cabinet and the Supreme Court. Leaving the uniformed generals out of the audience would reduce the Imperial trappings in a noticeable way.
On Obama's speech itself. My Austrian wife was not at all enchanted by this line, which for most listeners probably sounded like boilerplate:
And yet, as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.
The Afghanistan War is looking up, the President tells us. That would be the war that has been supposedly going well since 2001, with no end yet in sight:
Thanks to our heroic troops and civilians, fewer Afghans are under the control of the insurgency. There will be tough fighting ahead, and the Afghan government will need to deliver better governance. But we are strengthening the capacity of the Afghan people and building an enduring partnership with them. This year, we will work with nearly 50 countries to begin a transition to an Afghan lead. And this July, we will begin to bring our troops home.
At least copy like this makes the job of speechwriters and Pentagon flacks easier. They can just look up copies of press releases from the Vietnam War on how well things are going and tweak a word here and there.
In a letter to the 100,000 U.S. forces, Petreaus said that over the last year, the U.S.-led counter-insurgency campaign had succeeded in halting "a downward security spiral in much of" Afghanistan and even reversed "it in some areas of great importance."
The blog post isn't signed, but the blog is a joint product of Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel, and Nancy Youssef, all three of whom were doing real and substantial reporting on the run-up to the Iraq War, when Judy Miller and Michael Gordon at the New York Times were facilitating the neocons' weapons-of-mass-destruction phony propaganda. They are old-fashioned. They think a news article should report on the news, and not just pass on quotes from our glorious generals. The post also tells us:
Of course, it was Petraeus who reported in September that senior Taliban leaders had reached out to President Hamid Karzai's government to discuss holding negotiations on a much-longed for political settlement of the war. The intelocutor, however, turned out to be an impostor and no apparent progress was made on starting negotiations. That wasn't mentioned in the general's letter.
Civilian casualties also hit an all-time high in 2010, with more than three-quarters blamed on the Taliban and other insurgent groups. The United Nations charted a 20 percent increase - to at least 6,215 - in civilian casualties for the first 10 months of 2010 compared to the same period a year earlier. And adjacent areas of Pakistan, where U.S. drone attacks rose by more than 160 percent last year, remained sanctuaries for the Taliban and allied groups.
None of that was in Petraeus' assessment either.
On domestic issues, the five-year spending freeze makes no sense. It's pro-cyclical, tending to slow the economy during a recession/Depression, when what we need are aggressively counter-cyclical policies to generate immediate growth.
The spending freeze also plays to the Republicans' framing of economic issues, in which gubment programs except for the military are bad.
Noam Scheiber puts a hopeful spin on Obama's turn toward more business-friendly rhetoric in a piece published before the speech, SOTU Address: The Real Story of Obama and Corporate AmericaThe New Republic 01/25/2011. Short version: Obama has charmed the CEO's into thinking he's caved to them, but he really hasn't. Scheiber doesn't explain how this approach fits into Obama's cave-in on the tax deal last month.
We'll have to see, though, what substance may lie behind the competitiveness talk. Paul Krugman in The Competition MythNew York Times 01/23/2011 puts it this way:
In advance of the State of the Union, President Obama has telegraphed his main theme: competitiveness.
This may be smart politics. Arguably, Mr. Obama has enlisted an old cliché on behalf of a good cause, as a way to sell a much-needed increase in public investment to a public thoroughly indoctrinated in the view that government spending is a bad thing.
But let’s not kid ourselves: talking about "competitiveness" as a goal is fundamentally misleading. At best, it's a misdiagnosis of our problems. At worst, it could lead to policies based on the false idea that what's good for corporations is good for America.
And neither in terms of economic growth nor social justice does this sound like a good idea, from Obama's speech:
So tonight, I'm asking Democrats and Republicans to simplify the system. Get rid of the loopholes. Level the playing field. And use the savings to lower the corporate tax rate for the first time in 25 years – without adding to our deficit.
The lowering the corporate tax rate I can see Obama doing. Whether the "loopholes" will be closed, I'm not so sure.
Now, we'll have to see what the actual proposals are.