Dissecting the State of the Union wish list is a time-wasting, futile exercise. The annual airing of the White House agenda is a constitutional holdover from a time when a president’s plans were greeted with something other than suspicion and dread. Why do we still pay attention to these pointless, overlong harangues? Are we waiting for the president who will say something completely unexpected, perhaps tell us that he has done a terrible job, and that there is no hope for the future? President Obama came close to doing exactly that on Tuesday night. If he had decided to come clean and be completely candid about the condition our country is in, about the prospects for making good on his American Promise to the middle class, and his plans should Democrats win big in November, we would already be seeing a spike in our national suicide rate.
Two messages were delivered during the State of the Union. First, America is not as good as it should be. Americans are being shorted. Our “institutions have let us down….” We should “Imagine what we could accomplish….” and “Think about the America within our reach….” America is unfair, and “a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by….”¹
The second message was that our goal as Americans should be the same nose to the grindstone existence we expected 65 years ago. Not the American dream you were counting on? The Obama version of the American Promise is that hard work pays for your house, college for your children, and lets you “put a little away for retirement.”² Is this the best he can offer, the reality of three years of failed economic tinkering, or is this all that Americans will have left when he is finished with us?
In 2008 we were promised that the Obama-Biden team would “bring about the kind of change America needs.”³ The tone sounded coercive, the sort of thing a judge might say before sending a youthful offender to prison to teach him a lesson. Enough voters swallowed the populist mishmash of middle class salvation, whacking the wealthy, and punishing financial interests to put a candidate in office who seemed conflicted about an American dream we were told was already lost:
Obama has been a strong advocate for working people throughout his public life, and he will stand up to special interests and bring America together to reclaim the American dream.4
Obama populism has not changed much since 2008. The president has had three years to prove the merit of his ideas. The result has been a disaster with enough blame, finger pointing, and bad feelings for ten administrations. What is most damaging is the false picture we are still being sold of what America is, and what Americans can accomplish.
The president talks about Washington being isolated from the plight of the middle class, and he has developed an elaborate mythology of fundamental unfairness to explain the failure of his policies. The Obama brand of federal paternalism is a patronizing insult to those Americans the White House claims to support. Spreading the money around to the groups most likely to keep Democrats in power and continually threatening to raise taxes on higher earners and business owners sends the message that success in America is no longer worth the struggle. Public employee salaries, pensions, and benefits are breaking state budgets, the Federal Government is at the beck and call of illegal immigrants, and the NLRB has vowed to make it easier for unions to infiltrate private sector businesses. Meanwhile, successful business owners who create jobs are being publicly rebuked for profiting at the expense of the middle class. Mr. Obama talked about admiring success on Tuesday night, but three years of blaming the wealthy for his failure to grow the economy speaks otherwise.
Barack Obama believes we should aspire to “put a little away for retirement”5 because we will all have to pay for his brand of federal solicitude. For many Americans a little is as good as it is going to get. Big government paternalism is expensive. The constant threat of divvying up wealth and opportunity so everything is fair and equal is destroying the American Promise, killing America’s spirit, and runs counter to everything this country stands for.