President Gasbag

by Alexander Cockburn, February 2, 2011

After watching President Obama’s state of the union, plus the first Republican response to it by Rep Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and the second response by Rep Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, chair of the Tea Party caucus in Congress, it‘s hard to avoid the conclusion that if nations survive and prosper by realistic assessment of their problems, America really is finished.

Obama surely instructed his speechwriters to capitalize on his successful outing to the memorial in Tucson, where he gave a speech that essentially reprised the campaign rhetoric of 2008 that got him elected in the first place. The result in Congress Tuesday night was the quintessence of gasbaggery.

The keynote was unity, symbolized by Democrats and Republicans eschewing their normal factional seating pattern in favor of interspecies mixing. Rep Joe Wilson, famous for having shouted “You lie” at Obama during his healthcare speech to a joint session of Congress in 2009, now sat demurely next to two lady Democrats. Supreme Court Justice Alito who mouthed a reproof at Obama at his last state of the union, didn’t even show. Neither did the other two most conservative justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, (the latter now in hot water for failing to reveal on his financial disclosure forms the nearly $690,000 paid to his wife Ginni by a right-wing lobby shop, the Heritage Foundation between 2003-2007.)

The consequence was a markedly less spirited, partisan affair. Instead of bounding to their feet in raptures of applause or snarling in their chairs, the nation’s legislators sat demure and glassy eyed as Obama gave a pep rally on America’s crisis.

It was all very, very familiar. America has lost its technological dominance. Solution: Kennedy’s New Frontier, when the shocking challenge of the Russian Sputnik, launched into space in 1957, led to the US moonshot which in turn “unleashed an age of innovation.” America now faces another “Sputnik moment.” The challenge: to “out-innovate, out-educate and outbuild the rest of the world.”

This is to be achieved by a green revolution in energy, better schools and teachers, efficient government subservient to the needs of business, less debt.

From the 1970s we got a reprise of President Nixon and President Carter’s pledges of energy independence. Obama’s version was spectacular in its divorce from reality. He set a “goal” —soothing word — that by 2035 — five presidential terms after his last conceivable day in office in 2016 — 80% of America’s energy “will come from clean energy sources.” This being Obama, it turned out in the next sentence he was counting not only wind and solar but also coal, natural gas and nuclear power as “clean.” Even so, without oil, the notion is ludicrous.

Every president calls for Americans to do better at science. Clinton made a veritable industry out of it, also out of “reinventing government,” which Obama also proposes to rehab in the form of a new onslaught on burdensome regulation, so crippling to the American entrepreneurial spirit, not to mention Justice Thomas’s peace of mind. Like Clinton, Obama wants every American child to have the ability to log onto the internet, though presumably only to do home work and not read the sort of incendiary political and ethical tracts studied so keenly by that child of the internet and foe of schools, Jared Loughner of Tucson.

“Take a school like Bruce Randolph in Denver,” said Obama. “Three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado; located on turf between two rival gangs. But last May, 97% of the seniors received their diploma. Most will be the first in their family to go to college. And after the first year of the school’s transformation, the principal who made it possible wiped away tears when a student said ‘Thank you, Mrs. Waters, for showing… that we are smart and we can make it’.”

I asked Rob Prince, a CounterPuncher in Denver what the real story is on Bruce Randolph. Rob sent me back this comment from Phil Woods, a poet and retired teacher:

“My take on Bruce Randolph, and I used to know the principal a little bit because she was an assistant at South when I first got there, is that it fits the Arnie Duncan model. You cherry pick minorities for college track, kick out all the other difficult kids, get the unions to give you a waiver so you work the teachers to death and call it progress. The point is, as with charter schools, this kind of stuff tends to be unsustainable because it causes teacher burn out. As with so much else, educational ‘reform’ has to use market forces, etc. etc. All else is outside the pale.”

The deficit is to be fought by a freeze in annual domestic spending for the next five years, which will reduce the deficit by $400 billion and reduce discretionary spending, Obama vowed, to the level of the Eisenhower years. This pledge seems to undercut the government investment required for a green energy revolution, plus a high speed rail network, not to mention our old friend — probably the most realistic passage in the entire speech — a redoubling investment in road and bridge repair, the standard make-work ploy of every president trying to create jobs.

The left got a vague pledge from Obama not to mess with Social Security plus a rhetorical kick at the oil companies. The right got substantive support for lowering corporate taxes plus all sorts of agreeable commitments about cutting Medicare and so forth. There was even a very vague hint, in a sentence (“I’m asking Democrats and Republicans to simplify the system. Get rid of the loopholes. Level the playing field”) that Obama might head towards giving up the progressive tax system altogether and head towards the rightwingers’ dream of a flat tax, which usually, in its habitual right-wing garb spells out as roughly an 18% rate for poor and rich alike, a putative levy much appreciated by the rich, or at least those among them whose accountants aren’t inventive to ensure that they pay no taxes at all.

Success, the members of Congress learned from the President, is “a function of hard work and discipline,” “the future is ours to win,” “the changes we face are bigger… than politics.” Obama did not forget to reassure the US Congress that “America is a light to the world” (a steal from Woodrow Wilson), that “we do big things” and that “our destiny remains our choice.”

Obama’s address was swiftly followed by official rebuttal from Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Budget Committee, noted for calling for swift privatization of Social Security. Sensitive to the spirit of warmth and bipartisanship Ryan did not disclose to the national audience this ambition, but stressed the traditional fantasy message of small-town Republicanism: budgets have to be balanced, no matter how much blood — a word he did NOT use — might be left on the floor: “limited government, low taxes, reasonable regulations, and sound money… Limited government and free enterprise have helped make America the greatest nation on earth. These are not easy times, but America is an exceptional nation.”

Then — screened only by CNN — came the fiery Bachmann, fresh from an outing to Iowa last weekend where she claimed the Founding Fathers had been stalwart foes of slavery and had successfully labored to end it, which would have come as news to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. It’s probably because she gave up reading any history after her ugly experience with Gore Vidal’s Aaron Burr: “He was kind of mocking the Founding Fathers and I just thought, 'I just remember reading the book, putting it in my lap, looking out the window and thinking, 'You know what? I don't think I am a Democrat. I must be a Republican'.”

Bachmann’s star is rising as the next Sarah Palin, now a fading farce. She certainly gave the most spirited presentation of the evening in five short minutes, replete with the sort of charts Glenn Beck likes use. She dwelled on a fact omitted by Obama from the resume of his successes, namely that that unemployment rate is still at 9.4%, despite a $3 trillion increase in the deficit: “Instead of a leaner, smarter government, we bought a bureaucracy that now tells us which lightbulbs to buy and which may put 16,500 IRS agents in charge of policing President Obama's healthcare bill.”

That’s Tea Party talk which at least has the virtue of concreteness.

Bachmann did not fail to note that “America is the indispensable nation of the world.”

As noted at the outset, the evening marked another downward swoop in the national fantasy. The rest of the world got only fleeting mention from Obama, nothing from Ryan and a brief allusion to Iwo Jima from Bachmann, who clearly did not know that the famous photo of the raising of the flag was a staged replay. The relationship of war — as currently waged in Afghanistan — to the national deficit was not mentioned by any of the speakers, even though Stewart Lawrence wrote on our CounterPunch.org website last week very interestingly about a Left-Tea Party alliance on Pentagon spending. Ryan and Bachmann made no mention of military spending.

All three ignored the export of jobs and the destruction of American manufacturing and the pauperization of American families. Obama seemed to be trying to stage a replay of his own, of the US economy in the 1950s. “We do big things.”

No we don’t. We do Stupid Big Things, dating back to that last heyday of Stupid Big Thing Thinking — dam construction in the 1930s, surging to the disaster of the Glen Canyon dam and Lake Powell in the 1950s, the same decade freeway construction — Big Concrete — destroyed city after city the same way — albeit more permanently — Big Bombing destroyed Germany and many countries thereafter.

Mr. President: Big Thingishess is passé, like the new tunnel to Manhattan from New Jersey. It’s an unfinished Tunnel to nowhere, like the Bridge to nowhere in Alaska; boondoggles so swollen in their porkerish immensity that even their boosters run out of hot air trying to justify them. Is it $350 billion for the F-35? Let’s hear $400 billion. Give me $500 billion!

Nothing about the costs of war in Iraq and Afghanistan — without which there would be no deficit right now. Nothing about the costs of that Big Thing — the American gulag and its three million unproductive denizens. It’s not just that none of Tuesday night’s speakers had any sort of a sane plan. None of them had a map of America’s recent history, to help them figure out where the ship of state has drifted, sails in tatters and parrots perched on the yard arm, squawking about America’s singular greatness.

One Response to President Gasbag

  1. chuck becker Reply

    February 5, 2011 at 12:49 am

    Wow, what an analysis. You accomplished the almost inconceivable in in writing 1,790 words of the English language, not a single one of which I can agree with. But I will say this, you laid down some stylish prose.

    “Nothing about the costs of that Big Thing — the American gulag and its three million unproductive denizens.”

    Of course, the ideal would be to eliminate crime and criminals. Since we fail at that, what’s the cost of incarcerating versus the cost of NOT incarcerating? It’s cheaper to incarcerate than to not, that’s why we do it. This is an area where we’d actually benefit from becoming quite a bit less ‘American’ and a lot more like the Japanese, who are very law abiding people. Japan has ‘criminals’, but the police and the criminals operate by an elaborate and well understood code of conduct. And civilians rarely get involved. If only American criminals (and cops) would act like that.

    The cost of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we eliminated all those costs, it would reduce the current year deficit from $1.4T all the way down to $1.2T. Since 2001, we’ve spent $1T on the wars and added $8T to the debt. This is not to defend the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, only to point out that fanciful math doesn’t help the cause (whatever that may be).

    The United States did not invent slavery, we inherited it from the British. It was a horror, a national shame, an inexcusable injustice, but the Founding Fathers didn’t just cook it up out of thin air. The three-fifths rule was the only thing that allowed the Constitution to pass muster with the states and get ratified. It might have been gratifying to pull a Barbar Boxer – fist thrust into the air – but then there’da not have been a United States to later perfect. And Washington and Jefferson were deeply troubled by slavery. Washington freed his slaves, he could afford to. Jefferson did not (he only freed five slaves) because he died deeply in debt. We did fight a Civil War to preserve the Union and end slavery, credit given where credit due?

    It’s late, I have to go, best wishes to all in the Valley,

    (Capt) Chuck Becker
    AVHS ’68

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