Sunday, February 13, 2011

Some Belated Thoughts on the State of the Union (the speech, that is)

Well, it certainly wasn't the one I would've given.  Or, slightly more plausibly, would've written.

All in all, it was probably pretty astute politically . Obama was optimistic and not too partisan, leaving Republicans to play Chicken Little on the deficit, a role that didn't work too well for Mondale in 1984. At the same time, he made a case for government actually trying to accomplish things, rather than simply withering away.

Still, I have been advocating, as you may recall, what I call fact-based politics-- the idea that democracy functions better when people are not fundamentally mistaken about the facts. No one else has the weight the President has to challenge people's mistaken beliefs-- there's no Walter Cronkite any more.

I won't go into details, because if you're a regular here you're tired of it, but the public seems to be mostly unaware of how overpriced and underperforming our health care system is, or where the money goes in the Federal budget, or what the difference is between current spending and investment, or how much the distribution of income has changed over the last few decades. Just for a start.

Then there's the "put your money where your mouth is" approach:

"During the last election campaign, the Republican slogan on health care was 'Repeal and replace.' Since then, we've heard a lot about 'repeal,' but not much about 'replace.' I think it's time to tell the American people what your plans are for health care: Do you intend to once again allow insurance companies to deny people coverage for preexisting conditions? To set lifetime limits for how much they have to pay out, so if you get an expensive disease, you're not covered? Do you intend to close the Medicare drug plan donut hole? What, if anything, do you intend to do about the tens of millions of people who can't afford individual coverage?"

"In the last election campaign, we heard some of you say that you intend to do something about deficits, but without cutting Social Security, Medicare or defense or raising taxes. I'm certainly willing to work with you on this, but I'm going to need to see some numbers. Why don't we set a goal of reducing the deficit to, say, two percent of our national income by 2015? That's not as small a number as zero, but it's small enough to start the national debt shrinking relative to our income, and it's lower than the deficit was at any time in the eight years of Ronald Reagan's presidency. I'm working on my administration's budget now. Why don't you come up with a proposal within, say, two months, and we'll run it by the Congressional Budget Office to see how close you come?"

Finally, guns. I admit this wouldn't have fit terribly well with a speech about the future and American competitiveness. But this issue needs to be addressed somewhere. And it's an area where there has to be some room for consensus, if only on things like improving background checks and banning bullet clips that let you shoot twenty people without reloading. It thus gives Obama another opportunity to position himself as centrist and pro-bipartisanship. And nothing will happen until someone puts it on the public agenda, and he's the only one who can do that. Another underappreciated power of the Presidency.

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