Wednesday, January 26, 2011

No Dwelling On The Present

In retrospect (with 20/20 vision, anything is possible), it should have been expected. Four hours before the President began to deliver his State of the Union message (transcript here), Chris Matthews stated

The administration`s focus will be on the economy, and on job creation, both public and private investment. The president will encourage Congress to make decisions that reflect what he calls "smart spending" -- spending that will produce jobs and greater economic growth in the future.

Well, no and yes.

The President certainly did obsess talk about the future. In only the first few minutes, he referred at least four times to 'the future':

.... but to win the future, we'll need to take on challenges that have been decades in the making.

As Robert Kennedy told us, "the future is not a gift, it is an achievement. Sustaining the American Dream has never been about standing pat. It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age.

But if we want to win the future- if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas- then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.

The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation.

And what better way to emphasize the future than to talk about education- which produces dividends in the future? So we learned about our nation's new role models, such that "nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in a new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science." Nevertheless, the President commented "our students don't just memorize equations, but answer questions like "what do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world? What do you want to be when you grow up?"

The incongruity of youngsters being asked about changing the world in a math or science class (memorizing equations) didn't stop the President from spending 6-8 paragraphs pimping his wrongheaded Race to the Top program. Even then, Obama looked ahead, apparently concluding this theme by maintaining

If we take these steps- if we raise expectations for every child, and give them the best possible chance at an education.... by the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

Applause! Applause! But he was not done, continuing "one last point about education."

The emphasis on education was part of the larger focus on the future. The President boasted that China and India are "investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became the home to the world's largest private solar research facility, and the world's fastest computer." "We need," Obama emphasized, "to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world." (Math and science, necessary; English, optional. We can "out" out anything.) And "the first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation," recognizing "our free enterprise system is what drives innovation." Further, "if we want to win the future- if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas- then we also have to win the race to educate our kids."

The emphasis on education, innovation- and technology, which is of a piece with the other two- fit in neatly with the President's focus on the future, even if it led him to curious free association about the old Soviet Union:

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn't even there yet. NASA didn't exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

This is our generation's Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven't seen since the height of the Space Race. And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We'll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology -- (applause) -- an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

Matthews assured viewers the President would "focus" on "creation" and Obama did contend

Thanks to the tax cuts we passed, Americans' paychecks are a little bigger today. Every business can write off the full cost of new investments that they make this year. And these steps, taken by Democrats and Republicans, will grow the economy and add to the more than one million private sector jobs created last year.

Even there- in the one reference made by the President to creating jobs now- Obama applauded an initiative which he already has taken, neglecting to propose anything which would help individuals currently unemployed. The Huffington Post's Howard Fineman notes

And he cleverly laid down economic-development goals--targets for electric cars, clean-energy use, new teachers and test proficiency--that won't have to be met until a second term, if he gets one.

Hardly surprising, then, that the GOP has little to criticize in the President's speech while the mainstream media is generally laudatory. Education, innovation, research and technology entail long-term investments- not short-term spending which, as students of basic macroeconomics learn on Day 1, is critical to recovery from a recession. Republicans, who in times of inflation were complacent about deficits (Dick Cheney: "Reagan proved deficits don't matter") now are exorcised about spending when long-term interest rates and inflation still are relatively low. Further, who could be against education, innovation, research and technology? Probably not even Scrooge, especially with the recent cut in income taxes, which suggests that education, innovation, research and technology will not be paid for. Who is going to turn down a free lunch?

In the face of tight credit and 9.4% unemployment, the President's focus was not on the present but on the future. Stay positive, guy. Already, as Obama showers billionaires with tax cuts, no Republican dares call him a "tax and spend Democrat." Now, focused virtually entirely on the future, practically denying the unpleasant present, no Republican can call him a "gloom and doom Democrat."

Gerald Ford was slammed as saying of New York, "Ford to City: Drop Dead," which was an interpretation of a policy proposal. But with Barack Obama's good luck (a radicalized opposition party and a subservient Democratic Party), he won't have to face a similar observation: "Obama to the Unemployed: Drop Dead."

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