The State of the Union address is an occasion for setting the agenda for the future. Unfortunately for President Obama, his party lost the election, which makes the realization of that agenda next to impossible. He seemed to know this. His speech lacked lacked the usual elan. He identified four steps to “winning the future”: * Encourage American innovation. This was mostly about energy policy, and I thought most of it was on the wrong track. He indicated his intention to end tax breaks for oil companies, as if to say, we don’t need them any more. Except we do need them; fossil fuels and particularly offshore drilling are going to supply a substantial fraction of the country’s energy needs for many years to come. He also touted biofuels, and “clean” energy — the trouble being, of course, that it isn’t so clean. Biofuels do more harm than good. America’s experiment with biofuels has been a disaster. Soon half of our corn crop will be used for ethanol. The fertilizers and nutrients that corn requires have washed into our rivers and created dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. We have heard a lot about the potential of “green jobs,” but it is more a slogan than a reality. Wind energy is quite the fad in Texas (and elsewhere) today, but it, like ethanol, depends upon government-created mandates and subsidies for the power lines that bring the energy to the consumer. * Educate our kids. This was one of the most poignant passages of the speech, because Obama seemed to recognize that the problem defied solutions. He did brag on his “Race to the Top” program, which Governor Perry chose not to participate in, rejecting some $700M in federal funds. But it was clear that Obama understood that there was no magic solution, that the problem ultimately came down to the quality of teachers in the classroom and the involvement of parents in turning off the TV sets on school nights. * Rebuild America. America’s aging infrastructure is something that should have been a priority going back to nineties, and to some extent the stimulus package of 2009 did address it. Obama’s pet project in this regard is high-speed rail, which I believe to be a very dubious solution. Traveling by fixed rail is very nineteenth century. The cost is enormous, as it requires grade separation along the entire route. If you think eminent domain is an issue now, wait until the federal government starts to build embankments that divide rural landholdings. And rail doesn’t move enough people. Finally, when you get to your destination, you’ll need transportation. We would be much better advised to spend the money on roadways, overpasses, and bridges. * Get out from under a mountain of debt. Two president have chosen to fight two wars without raising revenue. Every politician in Wsshington is at fault here for allowing this to happen. We have seen the same thing happen in Texas. We built highways with borrowed money. We conduct cancer research with borrowed money. We even bought equipment with borrowed money. And the cost of servicing that debt just piles up and piles up. Washington just does it with bigger numbers. It was hard to tell whether there was much enthusiasm for Obama’s goals because of the integrated seating of D’s and R’s. But the last part of his speech tacked hard to the right. Some of his concluding points: Families live within their means. Government should do the same. Medical malpractice reform to rein in frivolous lawsuits. Simplify the individual tax code. Veto any bill with earmarks. Freeze annual domestic spending for five years. Lower the corporate tax rate. Cut excessive spending wherever we find it. The irony should be apparent. If Obama had bothered to do one or two of these things early in his term, he might have had a lot easier time getting Republicans to work with him on his priorities. But this never happens. Even if he had been successful, his own party would have gone nuts. Overall, I would give the speech a B. It looked to the future, as a State of the Union speech ought to do, but it didn’t spend enough time or emotional energy on the continuing fiscal crisis and the economy. I think he ended up running in place, like a jogger at a busy intersection.
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