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Obama’s State of the Union proves again he’s a speaker, but can he also be a doer?

January 30, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments
JERUSALEM–President Obama’s State of the Union address dealt almost entirely with domestic issues, despite American troops active in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and now Yemen, as well as highly touted efforts with respect to Israel-Palestine and Iran. Also, the focus was heavily on the economy, and lightly on what had been his iconic health initiative. The style was vintage Obama, if the term vintage can be used for an individual with less than three years in the Senate and one year in the White House. The president was self-confident, but with enough modesty to preserve the image of the neighborhood friend who plays basketball.

Indicative of a familiar Obama is his selection of three high profile targets: bank reform, budget cutting, and unemployment. One can hope that he will do better than he did with the challenging issues of his first year, but each will be difficult.

As a policy wonk the president knows the problems and the substance of likely solutions, but he is less than savvy about political obstacles. While banks may need a stronger hand on the regulatory tiller, they can make a case that responsibility for economic crisis was as much that of policymakers enamored of home ownership as of finance companies (many of them not banks) that responded to incentives. The health industry unleashed a fire storm of hysteria about excess government regulation, and the banks might be able to do something similar. Instead of bashing the thought of rationing health care, there will be bashing the government’s rationing of mortgages and small business loans.

Budget cutting as a political strategy has been around for a long time, along with the defense mechanisms of bureaucrats and clients. The most that is usually obtainable is slowing the growth of domestic budgets, rather than actually cutting into the money that supports established activities. The president may trim the budget he requests, but the final score will only be apparent after Congress has finished its initial work, and then supplemental appropriations.

If the president does succeed in reducing government spending on domestic programs, it will not be easy to increase employment. Unless, perhaps, he can enact a series of measures to induce investments by lowering taxes on high income households and corporations. But that will not help with the deficit, and might provoke opposition from a Congress that wants to preserve the Democratic ethos.

The basic problem of a liberal Democrat like Obama is that Americans are not liberal. An article in a professional journal of political science begins with a cogent statement of the problem.

Put simply, here is the conundrum of the modern American state: It is expected to solve or prevent a great variety of problems – from toxic microorganisms in fast-food hamburgers to homeland defense – all against a backdrop of citizens who do not believe that leaders in Washington can walk and chew gum at the same time. http://www.bepress.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1342&context=forum

Anyone doubting this should think more about the opposition to improving health insurance. It provides a caricature of American politics. A president trying to move one of the richest countries in the world with miserable health indicators toward every other western democracy had his prime issue hooted off the stage and nearly out of his State of the Union address.

It is not only in health where the United States is a laggard. On three measures of the size of government in relation to the economy (expenditures, revenues, and taxes) compiled by the World Bank, it scores 25th, 26th, and 28th among 28 of the richest democracies.

One might applaud the president’s efforts to speak life into an Israel-Palestine peace process that died ten years ago, and to engage with countries his predecessor defined as evil. His supporters may blame others for the lack of movement, but the simple view is that the president’s savvy in foreign politics is no better than in domestic politics.

President Obama won election with a dramatic campaign, but it was made easier by his opponent’s selection of a running mate. The world that depends on American leadership is still waiting to see if he knows how to govern.

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Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University

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