State of the Union speeches generate much buzz amongst the Washington press corps, most of whom won’t remember its contents in three months, and little from the American public, most of whom understand that politicians excel at reading empty, contradictory, and frequently baffling promises from a teleprompter. All of this talk about our bright future, our glorious past, and our terrifying present, is leavened with treacly human interest stories describing ordinary Americans doing extraordinary things; it’s the political equivalent of the NBC Olympic broadcast.
But for Democratic presidents, the State of the Union serves another very specific purpose: to further alienate the perennially alienated left wing of the party by expressing fealty—with a number of important and incoherent caveats—to the free market.
For instance, here is President Jimmy Carter in 1978, addressing the problem of stagflation: "[W]e know that in our free society, private business is still the best source of new jobs." And if those Yippies and Vietcongniks didn't quite follow him, Carter continued: "We need patience and good will, but we really need to realize that there is a limit to the role and the function of government." Years later, reflecting on the economic mess of the late 1970s, Carter blasted his fellow big government Democrats, complaining that "all they knew about [economics] was stimulus and Great Society programs." Sound familiar?
It’s often remembered that in his first State of the Union, Bill Clinton promised that his administration “will offer a plan to end welfare as we know it.” He underscored the point again in his 1994 State of the Union, explaining that his policies would reward “work over welfare.” And again in 1995: “So let this be the year we end welfare as we know it. But also let this be the year that we are all able to stop using this issue to divide America. No one is more eager to end welfare.” In case he hadn’t estranged all of his former supporters on the left, Clinton reminded his audience in his 1996 address that “For too long our welfare system has undermined the values of family and work instead of supporting them.”
And President Barack Obama, in his latest plodding, platitudinous State of the Union speech, made sure to declare that “Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation” and that corporate taxes needed to be cut in order to compete with countries like Sweden, a social democratic state with a tax rate 15 percent lower than the United States. Now to be sure, following his uninspired celebration of the free market Obama immediately added a big, juicy, and disingenous caveat. While the market is the best way to organize an economy, he explained, it’s the job of Washington to facilitate innovation, as it does so well, and as it did in the case of the Internet. (I haven't the time or space, alas, to grapple with that whopper.)
Because now, Obama says, is our “Sputnik moment,” when, one presumes, a totalitarian regime is threatening to overtake the United States in development of vital military and communications technologies. Perhaps the Sputnik reference shouldn’t be taken so literally, but it should certainly raise the antennae of limited government types. In 1999, academic John Aubrey Douglass noted that the Sputnik panic joined ideological opposites in creating a we-must-spend-more-on-education panic: “Supporters of a stronger federal role in education united with critics of America’s schools systems, running roughshod over the long-standing reluctance to expand the influence of Washington in policy areas traditionally reserved to the states.” It was because of Soviet centralism in technological development and education that Sputnik was beeping and flashing in the atmosphere, ensuring that Western capitalism, in the phrase of the ruddy-faced First Secretary, would be “buried” within a decade.
And sure enough, Obama’s Sputnik line was followed by promises to lard all future budgets with programs that ensure the American economy is more Khruschevian (a joke, not an endorsement of Glenn Beck!), with promises of government expansion of “biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology—an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.” One imagines that François Mitterrand announced the Minitel with similar enthusiasm. (And while we’re talking ARPANET, Sputnik, and the Minitel, why not revisit Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey’s terrific deconstruction of those technological innovations developed by the United States government.)
This seemed the general theme of the evening; occasional head fakes towards classical liberalism, only to sprint back towards to modern American liberalism. For instance, “to help pay for” the promised technological innovation in the energy sector, Obama promised to “[ask] Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies,” a wonderful sentiment soon neutralized by a further promise to subsidize other energy industries and different corporations. And protectionists be damned, Obama then informed America that he pushed through a free trade agreement with South Korea, while failing to mention that his administration significantly watered down the deal and ignored those unsigned trade agreements with Panama and Colombia, both vigorously opposed by his labor union allies.
So the State of the Union, in this time when the country, we are constantly told, must “work together” (and sit together in a pointless show of “unity”), had the twin effect of irritating liberals and confounding non-liberals. Following the speech, MSNBC’s smiling lefty Rachel Maddow blubbered that the president offered a “prayer to the free market.” Taking a break from calling Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn.) a “balloon head,” Chris Matthews reminded free-market types that “Franklin Delano Roosevelt bailed out capitalism in the ‘30s. He saved it from God knows what.” Canadian Bacon director Michael Moore tweeted that the "bottom line" is that Obama is “not a progressive.” Not to be outdone by his ideological opposites, Georgia Republican Rep. Paul Broun, in a 140 character blast of stupid, tweeted that the president doesn’t "believe in the Constitution. [He] believe[s] in socialism."
But while the fringe left attacked positive mentions of the free market, and while pork-loving Democrats, like Sen. Harry Reid (Nev.) and Keith Ellison (DFL-Minn.), complained that states would lose valuable projects in an earmark ban, many liberals were pleased with the president’s performance. The top three stories on The New Republic’s website capture the enthusiasm: “Why the State of the Union May Have Been Obama's Best Speech”; “How Obama's Address Set a Cunning Trap for His Enemies”; and “Is Obama Finally Transforming Himself Into the President He's Always Wanted to Be?” A little further down, Jonathan Chait blasts Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) “hyper-ideological rebuttal speech,” which was more about winning converts to Friedrich Hayek than winning the future.
And while Ryan might not yet be presidential timber (as a journalist friend emailed last night, Ryan may be smart but he is still too Howdy Doody for the White House), his response speech was appropriately brief and underlined a point that constantly needs underlining: The United States is broke, and more spending is only going to make us more broke. This might not count as a “Sputnik moment,” but let us hope that President Obama soon has a “Carter moment” and realizes that economies cannot sustain more stimulus and the expansion of “Great Society programs.”
Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason magazine. This column first appeared at Reason.com.