State of the Union theater, in three acts:
Barack Obama's conservative critics were predictably steamed on Wednesday night, when the president had the temerity to describe the steaming pile that George W. Bush dumped in his lap. This passage, for instance: "At the beginning of the last decade, America had a budget surplus of over $200 billion. By the time I took office, we had a one-year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade. Most of this was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts, and an expensive prescription drug program....That was before I walked in the door."
That passage is basically accurate. Bush defenders would prefer that Obama behave as if America started with a clean slate at the moment he took the oath, because willful amnesia would excuse them from owning up to the mess they made. Their argument, as we know, is that Obama should be roasted at every opportunity for talking so much about what he inherited, apparently in the belief that it is unprecedented and disgracefully unpresidential to heap blame on one's predecessor.
Here's another passage: "The problems we inherited were far worse than most inside or outside of government had expected. The recession was deeper than most inside or outside of government had predicted. Curing these problems has taken far more time and a higher toll than any of us wanted."
Vintage Obama, still complaining about what he inherited....But wait....Well, well, what do we have here....That wasn't Obama talking. The latter passage appeared in the 1983 State of the Union speech, and sprang from the silver tongue of Ronald Reagan. Yep, the conservative icon was still complaining about what he had inherited from Jimmy Carter a full two years after taking the oath. Which should come as no surprise, since, as late as 1988, the Republicans spent millions on TV ads lamenting the mess that they had inherited from Carter.
And it's fine with me that they did. No president serves in a vacuum; every president serves on a continuum. They all have to deal with whatever they inherited, and they are right to frame their own actions in that broader context. Reagan was right to do it in 1983, just as Obama was right to do it the other night. The Republicans today are wrong when they insist that Obama is saying something new, but that is merely another symptom of their willful amnesia.
Meanwhile, they're steamed that Obama had the temerity in his SOTU speech to criticize the U.S. Supreme Court for opening the floodgates on corporate spending in political campaigns. (The key passage: "With all due deference to separation of powers, last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests - including foreign corporations - to spend without limit in our elections. Well, I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people, and that's why I'd urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that corrects some of these problems.")
Obama may or may not have overstated the threat of foreign corporations spending unlimited money on American campaigns. There a law barring money from foreign nationals, but it's unclear whether it bars money from foreign corporations with U.S. subsidiaries; nevertheless, a number of campaign finance scholars believe that these corporations will be able to pour untold millions of dollars through the loophole.
But the thrust of the GOP argument is that Obama did something outrageously unprecedented when he rebuked the government's least-accountable officials for rewriting the political campaign rules. Where does this guy get off, using his State of the Union speech to criticize the U.S. Supreme Court?
But, again, the practice is not new. Franklin D. Roosevelt did it in his SOTU address of 1937.
At the time, he was angry not just about a single ruling, but about a slew of decisions striking down major planks of his New Deal agenda. Obama was more outspoken in tone, but Roosevelt made it quite clear that he was mightily displeased with the court's philosophy: "The judicial branch also is asked by the people to do its part in making democracy successful. We do not ask the courts to call non-existent powers into being, but we have a right to expect that conceded powers or those legitimately implied shall be made effective instruments for the common good. The process of our democracy must not be imperiled by the denial of essential powers of free government."
The headline today would have been: FDR Assails Court for Opposing "Free Government." Too bad we didn't have YouTube in 1937; perhaps a high court judge in the audience would have mouthed "Not True."
On the political front, this was the best passage in the speech: "And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership."
Exactly right. Republicans have somehow convinced themselves that the Massachusetts Senate election was a mandate for them to slam the brakes on governance until 2013. Wrong.
The Washington Post sponsored a post-election survey of the Massachusetts voters. They were asked whether they wanted Republican Scott Brown to work with the Democrats on legislation, or simply obstruct everything. Eighty-two percent of the voters - and 75 percent of those who cast ballots for Brown - said that they want the new senator to "mainly work with the Democrats to get some Republican ideas into legislation." And when they were asked specifically about health care reform, 70 percent of the voters - and nearly half the Brown voters - said they want him to "work with the Democrats on these changes...to the country's health care system."
The question, going forward, is whether the public will truly hold the Republicans at least partially accountable for gumming up the machinery. The Republicans certainly don't think so, no matter what the Massachusetts voters told the pollsters. Heck, the other night, they even refused to applaud Obama when he talked about tax cuts. In the Senate yesterday, they voted in lock-step opposition to a moderate plan which requires that new spending not be added to the deficit. A lot of them don't even like the idea of taking $30 billion in bank bailout money, and using it for business tax credits.
Apparently, here's the plan: Deny Obama any victory. Ensure that the nation stays in the ditch. Make things so bad that voters will turn to the Republicans in 2012.
And then, in 2013 and beyond, the new Republican president can lament the mess he inherited from Obama.