Obama's SOTU Speech: Government Unbound

Barack Obama appeared to be enjoying himself immensely during his State of the Union address. He got to talk — or rather read aloud (for an hour) — on national TV, as his loyal minions jumped to their feet more than once a minute (78 times in all) to roar their approval of every new government-spending plan he laid out and every progressive initiative that he offered on guns, voting rights, climate change, and immigration. Best of all, the president did not have to deal with a split screen and the burning cabin in Big Bear Lake, California, as a counterpoint. It was bad enough that the pre-SOTU gab fest on cable channels was cancelled for the coverage of the pursuit of the cop killer Chris Dorner.

The president could not have been happy with the pope for announcing he was stepping down this week, or with North Korea for setting off a powerful nuclear device. This was supposed to be Obama’s week to shine, and these distractions, especially the Dorner manhunt, were not part of the script. The North Korean blast probably led to shortening the president’s pitch in his speech last night for reducing the United States’ arsenal of nuclear weapons. For the president, nuclear-weapons reductions are like gun control — while the real problem is having these weapons in the hands of outlaw (criminal) nations like North Korea and Iran, the president seems to think our stockpile of them is the real problem.

Needless to say, there was no shout-out to the families of police officers murdered or shot by Dorner, much as there was not a word about the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi. Stevens and the entire Libyan fiasco were inconvenient and best left ignored during the president’s speech, as had been the approach from the time of the attack on the diplomatic outpost until after the election. Rather, the president reassured the nation that al-Qaeda was on its last legs and that the new threats in Africa could be contained by his targeted drone strikes or our backing of other countries sending troops to hot spots (e.g., France in Mali). The country simply did not need to ever occupy another country, nor send a large force to  fight.

It was not hard to tell that the president’s distaste for the upcoming sequester was much less focused on the cuts to defense than on the cuts to his cherished domestic discretionary spending programs. Defense spending is less redistributionist than entitlement spending or discretionary programs. Even worse, more of it goes to red states. You would never know from the State of the Union address that the sequester, which the president condemned on several occasions in his talk last night, was an act of Congress that he signed. He was also its sponsor.

The president, Joe Biden, and Chris Dorner also shared more than a lot of cable news attention last night; they also expressed a desire for more gun control. Dorner saluted the vice president’s efforts at gun control in his rambling manifesto (which contained almost exactly as many words as the president’s speech last night), though he seemed oblivious to the incongruity of backing gun-control measures while driving around Southern California with a small arsenal, firing at and killing law enforcement officers and their relatives. The president, in his emotional pitch for gun control towards the end of his speech, seemed to be acknowledging that his gun-control agenda had stalled a bit. The word went out to Democrat members of Congress to pack the galleries with gun-violence victims.

The president tried to sound reasonable on his gun agenda. He noted that his push for more background checks of gun buyers, smaller magazines, and a ban on “military” style assault weapons would not end all gun violence. In fact, it would likely end very little of it. Chicago, where the president will visit Friday, has a murder rate four times as large as that in New York City and a shooting rate six times higher. This stark differential is  partially due to the quality of the mayors in the two cities. And it is not because of differences in gun-control laws, which are tough in both cities and looser in the suburbs of both cities.

Chicago’s murder spree, and New York’s far greater safety record for its residents, has become a national embarrassment for the president’s hometown. There is much tougher sentencing in New York of gun-violence predators, and New York has a smarter policing strategy, including better targeting of police officers to more violent neighborhoods and the use of stop and frisk by New York police.

You will not hear the president call for any of the New York-type approaches on Friday, nor offer an admission that Chicago has a bigger gang problem than New York (and the gangs will get their guns one way or another). Rather, he will use the day to push Congress to take a vote on his proposed gun measures, and honor Gabby Giffords, Hadiya Pendleton, and the victims of Aurora, Virginia Tech, Newtown, and all the other mass shooting incidents in recent years.

The biggest deception in the president’s talk last night was the promise that all his new initiatives to “expand and secure the middle class” would not produce a dollar in new deficits. That is about as reassuring as the administration’s pledge that the 2009 stimulus package would keep the unemployment rate from ever reaching 8% (now four years and  $6 trillion in deficit spending later, the unemployment rate is still at 7.9%, down from a post-stimulus peak of just over 10%). The $50 billion in infrastructure spending, the new investments in clean energy, the new universal preschool program, the new housing subsidies for new mortgages, the cost of Obamacare for any illegals who become legal under immigration reform will all presumably be financed by new taxes or cuts in other programs.

The new federal spending, or “investments in the nation’s future” as the president prefers to call them, is part and parcel of an approach that sees government intervention as the way to achieve a fairer society. Fairness, or redistribution of wealth and income, is the president’s primary domestic concern. The size of the economic pie and its rate of growth have always seemed less of a concern.

Every recent public-opinion poll has suggested that the nation is more focused on the stagnating economy than on gun control, immigration, or climate change. This almost certainly reflects recent economic data, including an increase in the latest monthly reading on the unemployment rate and a stunning drop in GDP in the fourth quarter of 2012, at a time when economic growth should be accelerating after the steep recession a few years earlier.

The president’s approval rating for his handling of the economy has been consistently lower than his general approval rating, which is enjoying a post-election, post-inaugural high. As a result, the president was forced to acknowledge the obvious — that a growing economy was good for the country. On a few occasions last night, he cherry-picked a few government programs to boast of  the positive returns from government spending and seemed to endorse a growing private economy, or at least small business growth.

But as in all his speeches, the president could not keep from a few predictable class-warfare attacks. Corporations are generating record profits, but wages are stagnating. Billionaires are paying lower tax rates than their customers or secretariesare. Any entitlement reform would have to come from cuts for the well-off elderly matched by tax increases on the well-off from any age group,  and tax reform had to be a source for new “revenue” (taxes) for the government, not lower individual or corporate rates.

Class warfare worked in the 2012 campaign and the president believes in it. He really does think that the most successful people in the private sector do not deserve what they have accumulated, that their gains are often ill-gotten, and that much of it should be spread around. On the other hand, the parasitic crowd that lives off the expansion of the federal government and now dominates the nation’s capital and the wealthy suburban counties in Virginia and Maryland — where you can find America’s greatest concentration of high-income families — are the kind of wealthy people the president is comfortable with. They do not make anything, but they believe in the power of  big government and they generally support Democrats.

As with all of Obama’s ethnic and interest group pandering, the support for Democrats is the most important factor in determining where the president’s priorities and sympathies reside. Last night, the president’s good-galaxy constellation was on full display. Barack Obama is not only the president of the United States, but the leader of the Democratic Party — a party that he has openly and proudly moved to the left  since he took office.