The annual State of the Union (SOTU) address by a sitting American president is usually a much-hyped event that is billed by mainstream news networks as defining moments in American history. Oftentimes these showcase events fall flat and disappointingly low on the barometer that measures real socio-economic and political substance. They have been more lofty, flowered rhetoric, hyperbolic showmanship and public relations gimmickery than profound policy statements that make for credible believability.
President Barack Obama's second State of the Union address was one such event where only the props were changed to allow some Democrats and Republicans to sit together in the chamber that kind of shut off the incessant and infantile jack-in-the-box, up and down standing ovations, that made grown men and women look so silly. For me it was not one of the president's best speeches. It was predictable, broad and unspecific.
Literally, sidelined in the speech was that fact that the single most pressing economic issue facing the president and his Administration today is the growing poverty rate in America and the widening gap between the haves and the have nots. This ties in with the soaring and persistent unemployment index that he's had only very limited success in bringing down. The matrix is simple: high poverty and unemployment equals a chronic lack of productivity, low public spending, and very painful economic growth.
On the other hand, President Obama chose to reassure big business -" at every turn in his over one hour long speech - that up to now is not hiring jobless Americans even after his Administration pumped billions of dollars in taxpayer money to prop them up. Under his watch Wall Street speculators who helped to create the worst recession in a generation are faring well and the president even juxtaposed their success as evidence that the American economy was improving. Big, mega-bucks bonuses are back en vogue thanks to billions of taxpayer funded corporate welfare payments.
In true Bill Clinton style President Obama proved in this SOTU speech that he had mastered the Clintonian art of political triangulation. Heck, sometimes he sounded just like a moderate Republican only tweaking their conservative core principles to make them appear as liberal democratic ones.
Triangulation is the name given to the act of a political candidate presenting his or her ideology as being "above" and "between" the "left" and "right" sides (or "wings") of a traditional democratic "political spectrum". It involves adopting for oneself some of the ideas of one's political opponent (or apparent opponent). The logic behind it is that it both takes credit for the opponent's ideas, and insulates the triangulator from attacks on that particular issue.
But no amount of triangulation can obscure some fundamental facts that the president shied away from or deliberately did not address. The U.S. Census Bureau says that in 2009 over 43.6 million people lived in poverty - up near 4 million in a year and is the largest increase in 51 years.
The bureau said that the official poverty rate was 14.3 percent, or 1 in 7 of Americans, the highest proportion of the population since 1994. It was the third consecutive annual increase, up from 39.8 million, or 13.2 percent, in 2008. There were 8.8 million families living in poverty in 2009. The poverty rate for under-18s rose from 19.0 percent in 2008 to 20.7 percent in 2009, but fewer people 65 and older were in poverty, with the percentage rate falling from 9.7 percent in 2008 to 8.9 percent in 2009.
The report, called Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2009 , also found that:
- Among the working-age population, ages 18 to 65, poverty rose from 11.7 percent to 12.9 percent. That puts it at the highest since the 1960s, when the government launched a war on poverty that expanded the federal role in social welfare programs from education to health care.
- Poverty rose among all race and ethnic groups, but stood at higher levels for blacks and Hispanics. The number of Hispanics in poverty increased from 23.2 percent to 25.3 percent; for blacks it increased from 24.7 percent to 25.8 percent. The number of whites in poverty rose from 8.6 percent to 9.4 percent.
- Child poverty rose from 19 percent to 20.7 percent.
- The earnings of women who worked full time, year-round were 77 percent of that for corresponding men.
- The real median earnings of men who worked full time, year-round rose by 2.0 percent between 2008 and 2009, from $46,191 to $47,127. For women, the corresponding increase was 1.9 percent, from $35,609 to $36,278.
These are the government's own damning statistics on poverty that President Obama did not put in context and specifically address in his SOTU speech. And the woes of the poor and working poor has dramatically increased in the two years since he has been in office. While much of the blame is the effects of the just ended recession, the buck stops with the president and his Administration who were put in office, presumably, to tackle these difficult problems. For example, the share of Americans without health coverage rose from 15.4 percent to 16.7 percent -- or 50.7 million people -- mostly because of the loss of employer-provided health insurance during the recession.
So while this State of the Union Address, billed as a major domestic and foreign policy offering by President Obama, did contain a few gems of forward thinking it was vintage Obama. His impeccable oratory and rhetoric were clearly on display as he struggled to triangulate to the so-called "middle ground or center" in obvious efforts to win back unstable and fickle "independents" that ditched the Democratic Party in last mid-term elections.
To my mind SOTUs are not supposed to be deep on policy issues because the event does not lend itself to introspection, debate or analysis. But it does offer a rare opportunity for a sitting president to define his agenda and explain his strategy and tactics to all Americans. Admittedly, President Obama did that passably well but was, in my opinion, preoccupied with how Americans (and the rest of the world) was going to perceive his shift to the center and his prospects for re-election in 2012.
In this context the poor and working poor is an uncomfortable factor and so the president's characterization of them as "the vulnerable" is like Bill Clinton saying that "it depends on what is is." It is my hope that the president is not taking this constituency for granted. The president still has major political support among poor Blacks, Hispanics and other stratum of the working poor. Many have kept faith in him despite the fact that there has been no real bailout of "main street."
Finally, if this is the first salvo in the 2012 Presidential Elections then it was fairly effective but still somewhat disappointing. President Obama was too cautious, too measured, and too reasoned. That is the stuff of the classroom. If he's going to take on the Tea Party Movement and right-wing Republicans he must know that the political discourse and its rancid tones are not going to change just because he said so.
Heck, the Republican and Tea Party responses to his SOTU basically called him a liar and a failure. Both respondents attacked his policies, his efforts to halt a recession that he did not make, and literally ridiculed his healthcare law that they vowed to overturn and repeal. If he thinks that this was an exercise in civility then he should think again. Republicans have set their sights on making him a one-term president. They have control of the House of Representatives and they are looking to take the White House and his job. That's a declaration of political warfare and there is no civil discourse in combat.