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Smooth? Yes. Transformative? No.

Obama’s Address to Congress

by DAVE LINDORFF

Barack Obama’s first address to Congress provided Americans with yet another example of competent speechmaking, and I suppose, given that we’ve just endured eight painful years of oratorical farce, being able to listen to your president without wincing is something.

The problem is that the way forward proposed by the president as laid out in this address was almost always half-hearted, wrong-headed or doomed.

Obama declared at the outset of his address that the economic crisis was the major issue confronting the country, and while one could argue that this crisis is merely a symptom of much bigger issues, like the nearly completed deindustrialization of the nation, the death grip of militarism, and the growing political power of corporations, one could also concede that there is an urgent need to deal with the deepening recession.

But clearly, the proposals offered by the president for tackling the crisis are not up to the task.  He spoke primarily of the need to “get banks lending” again, explaining that this would require pouring still more hundreds of billions of dollars into these failing institutions.  You’d think that with a whole stable of bankers at his elbow, the president would by now have heard from at least someone that this is nonsense, but apparently not. Nobody in the White House or the Cabinet seems to want to point out to the boss that the reason banks aren’t lending is because most people—and companies—aren’t interested in borrowing. The economy is tanking and assets are sinking in value by the day. Why would anyone want to borrow to invest in such an economy? Furthermore, even if someone did want to borrow, banks will not want to lend unless they think there’s a reasonable prospect of having the money repaid. That means they want to see income, they want to see a full order book, they want to see, in the case of a mortgage, an asset that is fairly valued.  None of this exists.

That’s why the first $350 billion that was given to the banks last fall was simply pissed away and lost, not lent out, and it’s why the same thing is likely to happen to the next $350 billion Obama is preparing to give away. It won’t matter if he establishes a monitoring system for the second tranche of the Troubled Assets Relief Program bailout funds, or a mandate that they be used for making loans.

What is needed to fix this crisis is job security, and the only way to create that is by creating jobs. Obama talks of creating 3-3.5 million jobs, but most of these won’t even be created, even in smaller numbers, until the end of this year, by which time the official rate of unemployment could be above 9 per cent , and the real unemployment rate possibly more than twice that (that would be including people who’ve given up looking for work, or who are involuntarily working part time).

If the president really wanted to kick-start the economy, he would have announced a government program to directly hire the unemployed, by both the federal government and state and local governments (through block grants to the states), which would put people to work right now as teachers’ aides, park workers, school crossing guards, library assistants, companions for the elderly, city and rural clean-up crews, housing renovation project workers, mural painters, etc.  If he wanted to get really creative, he could establish teams of people, working under skilled contractor supervisors, to serve as an army of disaster relief workers, who could speed to the scene of future disasters to help local residents rebuild.  Millions of out-of-work people could be put productively to work with far fewer dollars than what is about to be shoveled out to contractors to construct or repair bridges and highways a year or more from now.

But that’s just the start of the problem with Tuesday’s address to Congress.  Obama then turned to what he said were the nation’s three great challenges—energy, health care and education.  He’s right that these are all serious problems, but his solutions are not up to the challenge.

On energy, he proposed spending $15 billion on research and development and for programs to improve efficiency.  If he really wanted to reduce US reliance on foreign energy, and to significantly reduce US greenhouse gas emissions, though, instead of funneling money to huge corporations and utilities, he would have called for a major national program, through tax credits, to subsidize the retrofitting of homes with geothermal heating systems.  These systems, which use the earth’s internal heat to warm water, can reduce the use of oil for home heating to zero, could be installed for as little as $10,000 per home on average if done in volume, and would pay for themselves over time. A federal tax credit of $5000 would probably be enough to convince many homeowners to do it, and the work would provide huge numbers of jobs across the country to plumbers and plumbers’ helpers and well drillers, besides reducing reliance on fossil fuels. Heck, he could kill two birds by calling for a training program to train unemployed people to do geothermal conversion work. Credits could also be offered to expand the installation of home rooftop solar water heaters, again a major potential source of employment for laid-off workers.

Obama’s health care plans, as they’ve been explained, are a recipe for failure. There is no way that this nation’s health care cost and access problems can be solved that includes the insurance industry as a part of it.  The key to solving them is having the government become the paymaster, as every other modern society in the world has long since realized. While Obama was whizzing through Canada, he should have stopped at a local Canadian health clinic and asked the locals how they like their health care system. He would have gotten an earful! There is no need for him to convene meetings of “business and labor, experts and health providers” to figure out what to do. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, he need only ask some Canadian health officials to come down and set up a version of their system here.  For that matter, he could ask the executives at Canadian subsidiaries of US companies operating in Canada—they love the Canadian health care system too!

Finally, on education, the president missed the point. It’s true that education in the US is a disgrace, that it is grossly unequal in both availability and quality depending upon the race and class of the local students, and that the educational standard of the nation as a whole is in decline. But simply pouring money into schools and into college loan programs won’t solve all this. One answer is to end the crazy idea of having local government be the primary source of funding for education.

 A second problem is that Americans have been discovering that getting an education is no ticket to success. Jobs are being shipped overseas so fast these days—including good jobs like engineering and math, and lately even law—that it makes no sense for students to borrow a king’s ransom to pay tuition and learn a trade. If they’re lucky people who earn a PhD in physics may end up managing a Burger King outlet. 

Worse yet, those Americans who decide to pursue education for reasons of passion rather than earning potential are also often dismayed to learn that subjects like literature, art, music and other “soft” subjects are not valued at all in our crass, commercial society. In China, talented students fight to enroll in state-run conservatories to study the arts. In Taiwan, the government just opened a striking new high school and university of the arts. In Europe, students study musical instruments as part of their state curriculum.  Here in the US, meanwhile, school districts are killing off their art and music programs, and focusing on the “Three Rs” (forget creative writing).  Even history gets short shrift.

If the president wants to revive education, he should stop talking about it as a job-training program, and start talking about it as the essence of a civilization. Instead of men in uniform being honored in the Capitol peanut gallery during his speech, or at least along with them, he should have invited some teachers so he could ask them to stand up and take a round of applause. (Even Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, the turncoat Democrat who backed Obama’s opponent John McCain last fall, and who looked like he was sucking on a lemon as the president spoke, would have had to clap then.)

Finally, of course, there were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And here Obama was particularly disappointing, though this was no surprise. He promised have most US troops out of Iraq by August 2010—but not all. US forces will continue to be there, fighting and supporting fighting, indefinitely. Meanwhile, instead of coming home, many American soldiers will simply be moved to Afghanistan, where Obama is expanding the war, with plans likely to have 60,000 troops there by this summer, and no doubt far more by the time Iraq has (hopefully) wound down.  If the president thinks he is going to help cut the federal deficit by ending the war in Iraq, as he claimed in his address, he doesn’t know much about accounting. The war in Afghanistan will certainly eat up any savings he gets out of Iraq, particularly if it leads to a wider conflict in Pakistan.

No amount of smooth talking gets around it: this was not the program of a “transformative” presidency.

DAVE LINDORFF  is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at dlindorff@mindspring.com