James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Obama

  • Religious Weekend Special: Return of the Atlas Shrugged Guy

    The man who said he'd close his business and fire his employees if Obama was re-elected ... is back!

    On this Good FridayPassoverEaster weekend observance, I present an email that has just arrived. It is from the person veteran readers will recall as "the Atlas Shrugged Guy." Its subject line was "So..." and it read in full:

    Still worshiping at the alter of socialism?

    Here is why I find this fascinating.

    * * *

    Back during the 2012 Obama-Romney re-election battle, a reader (whose real name, location, and business details I have known from the start) sent in a series of increasingly impassioned "we're about to lose our country!" messages. A sample from just before election day:

    Subject: What happens if Obama wins?

    I will tell you what happens, I close my business of 10 years and lay off my employees. I am done. Thats what happens. You might consider me one of those know nothings but I am highly educated, run a high technology company with several very high paying positions and am very much steeped in US History and am a stalwart in the notion of individual liberty and self reliance.  Freedom and liberty built this nation, not parasites like Obama and ilk. Obama has never produce anything in his life. Nothing, zero. Yet he is qualified to lead? Really? I have worked for leaders and he is no leader.

    He ended up sending many, many messages, including his responses to criticisms from other readers. I have a compendium and chronology in this post; the full Atlas Shrugged Guy archives are here. Some historian, at some point, could have a Hofstader-style field day with this material.

    As the months have gone on and most economic indicators have improved, I've sometimes wondered what happened to this guy.

    Obviously there is more to national life than economic indicators. And obviously too a case can be made against Obama's record from a variety of perspectives, even though (as I argued before his reelection run) I think he's avoided or corrected a far larger number of mistakes than he has made.

    But even those who think Obama is American's worst president must have realized that the hardest way to attack his record would be on the specific grounds the Atlas Shrugged Guy was worried about: the overall performance of the economy.

    For instance, consider the two best-known measures of financial-asset trends, the Dow Jones Industrial and S&P 500 averages. Let's not have the argument over how much these indicate about real national welfare, where the gains have gone, and so on. Let's just look at the trends. In each case, the first red arrow on the charts shows roughly when Obama began his first term, and the second is around his re-election. Here is the DJ:

    Dow Jones Industrials, via Macrotrends

    And the S&P:

    From Yahoo

    And the unemployment rate:

    From BLS data here.

    Or the federal deficit:


    Or U.S. oil production.

    From ZeroHedge

    And on through a bunch of other indicators, from net job creation to long-term interest rates or even to "strong dollar" indicators. You can argue that Barack Obama is an utterly failed president. But you cannot sanely do that on the grounds that the economy has gotten worse.

    * * *

    So I've wondered whether the Atlas Shrugged Guy was reconsidering any of his end-of-America fears or his John Galt-like threats. Now he re-appears, unbidden, to say that quite obviously he has not. I go back and forth between two hypotheses:

    1) He is more cunning than I thought and has in fact been playing out a multi-year long-con game, to see whether I would actually believe that someone held his (ridiculous) views. If he's been setting me up, a political troll-Catfish all this time, I have to say: Well done.

    2) He is being utterly sincere and thus is the latest sign of a political ecosystem so effective in its isolation that people actually believe that an administration's most evident strength is yet another example of its utter failure.

    As I say, you cannot sanely base your criticism of Obama on overall economic trends. But people still do so.

  • Readers on the Shutdown

    Who is helped by permanent-emergency governance, and why.

    In response to previous items on the press's false-equivalence mindset, and the all-or-nothing politics of the House GOP's demands, herewith a range of responses from readers.

    The surprising ripple effects of a government shutdown. Periodic threatened-and-real government shutdowns have become so frequent that it's easy to forget the damage they do. A reader with this little illustration:

    As a planning commissioner, I'm attending the California APA [American Planning Association] conference starting next Sunday (Oct. 6) in Visalia.  Yesterday, as I was on the websites for Yosemite and Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks that I am hoping to visit before the conference, it dawned on me that they would be closed in a Federal shutdown.  Since I would stay at least one, possibly two nights at a hotel in the area, those plans are currently on hold.  Even if there is no shutdown or only one for a day or two, it may be too late to change my plans. 

    So this Republican initiated game of chicken is already having an impact on one hotel's revenue stream.  I imagine there are many similar stories out there as we get down to the wire whether or not it does end in a shutdown.

    It's one traveler, changing plans for a night or two on the road, but from the aggregation of millions of such tiny decisions do businesses and whole economies expand or contact.

    Similarly on real-world effects, from a reader in the Colorado flood zone:

    Just to confirm that around here in flooded Colorado FEMA does seem to be slowing down because of shutdown concerns and the National Guard (which is doing road reconstruction on one of the major roads to Estes Park from the plains among other things) will be called off.

    Just one little example of the impact of a shutdown: Let's say a person from Estes Park needs to go to Loveland to see a doctor or conduct business there because it's the closest larger town to Estes. It now requires a roundtrip of about 250 miles to do that instead of a 70 mile roundtrip. Each day we get closer to winter when reconstruction of the road is more and more difficult. I haven't heard a single complaint about the impact of a shutdown from Rep. Gardner (R) whose district includes Estes Park and much of the most heavily damaged areas on the plains.  Shame on him and on all the other Republican representatives in Colorado...

    And all of this brinksmanship is in service of repealing a bill that will extend health care to almost all Americans... This is of course only one of thousands of similar stories from one just one impacted area.

    Boehner could solve this. A reader writes:

    Here is a sentence (from yesterday's NYT) that points up something that needs to be emphasized more, I believe:

    "Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio faced a critical decision this weekend: Accept a bill passed by the Senate on Friday to keep the government financed and the health care law intact and risk a conservative revolt that could threaten his speakership, or make one more effort to undermine the president’s signature domestic initiative and hope that a shutdown would not do serious political harm to his party."

    That sentence could be recast as "For the Speaker of the House, the choice comes down to whether to protect his job by screwing 800,000 government employees out of their paychecks now, or by engineering an worldwide economic conflagration in two weeks." If John Boehner thinks by staying in his job he's restraining the lunatics in his party from wrecking our political system completely, you have to question his sense of perspective. If he is not somehow completely cynical, he should resign the leadership and let the House GOP members turn their destructive potential on one another instead of letting them launch their attacks from behind his skirts.

    Or McConnell. Another reader:

    No one is mentioning that both the House and the Senate have passed budgets - and that they are not going to reconciliation because Senate Republicans won't let them. This sets up the theater of the absurd situation where Republicans in Congress are demanding life or death negotiations over a 6-week CR while refusing to negotiate over an entire year's budget.

    Or them both. A reader says talk of the internal GOP split is overdone:

    I've been reading for awhile now of an internecine battle within the Republican party, with a group of 20 or so hard-line Tea Party affiliated Republican congressmen holding the others hostage and forcing what increasingly looks to be the shutdown of our government (with a devastating default possibly looming in a couple of weeks).  What BS (sorry, there's no other way to say it).

    I mean, where's the battle?  The latest bill to come out of the House had unanimous support from the Republican Party!  It seems that there has been complete capitulation of the rest of the Republican congressmen to the hard-liners, and they are as much (if not more) responsible for the craziness that is occurring right now.... 

    If they REALLY were fighting for the soul of their party, they would be backing up their words with deeds to make sure such nonsense never passes a "majority of the majority" vote.  They would let Boehner know that the hard-liners couldn't even win in their own party.  And, if they were really serious, they would even seriously consider pulling their support for Boehner as speaker and (heaven forbid!) working with the Democrats to install someone that would actually, you know, try to govern.

    (And the Senate Republicans aren't much better.  If they really wanted to shame their colleagues in the House, they'd vote with the Democrats for a unanimous clean bill to continue funding of the government.  But they shrug their shoulders, say "Tsk, tsk, it's not us", and watch while things go from bad to worse).

    What a sad, sad group of cowards.

    New meanings of "compromise." From another reader: 

    The House Republicans bring to mind a guy who walks into a car dealership and offers $10,000 for a $30,000 car -- then accuses the dealer of acting in bad faith for refusing to negotiate. 

    Is this really unprecedented? Another:

    You wrote today: "In short, we have a faction making historically unprecedented demands -- give us everything, or we stop the government and potentially renege on the national debt."

    There is one precedent. In the months and years leading up to the Civil War, the Southern "Fire Breathers" were engaging in similar rhetoric, threatening to shut down the Union unless slavery was not just protected in the slave states, but also actually enforced in the free states. We all know what eventually happened. It seems inconceivable that something even remotely like that would ever happen again. Let's hope that's the case.

    Right: the 1840s-onward precedent is one I've invoked. From another reader:

    The pre-Civil War comparison has come to mind.  I can't see how this current mess will be resolved until the election after the 2020 census and the Democrats regain control of some state legislatures. 

    And, drawing out this comparison, Bernard Finel says that the point of shutdown threats is to bring about a shutdown

    Your Calhoun comparison is precisely correct. And indeed, the logical end point of all of this is a de-facto dissolution of the Union...

    My point [in this 2012 item] there was that the GOP is, I think, moving increasingly toward the notion of a government shutdown as an end in itself rather than a matter of leverage. The Tea Party caucus already largely believes that a government shutdown would have no negative consequences (other than perhaps politically). I think part of what is going on is that the GOP is slowly, but surely, psyching itself up to the next step, a shutdown as a matter of preference rather than negotiations.

    Does that seem crazy? Sure, but so does defaulting on the national debt. We are not dealing with ordinary politicians here. We're dealing with revolutionaries in the classic, Kissingerian, terminology. The old rules don't apply to them.

    Anyway, the big issue is, "what is the proper response if the GOP refuses to pass appropriations as a matter of policy preference?" In other words, what is the proper response should the GOP effectively choose to dissolve the Union -- which is what an extended government shutdown represents -- by simply preventing a single chamber of Congress from appropriating funds?

    I like the Bismarck solution personally [a unilateral declaration by the executive that "since the Constitution did not provide for cases in which legislators failed to approve a budget, he could merely apply the previous year’s budget." JF note: I think a response like this is Obama's only option if the debt ceiling doesn't go up, but that's a different topic for later on. Henry Aaron explains the situation well today in the NYT.]

    What about the Dems in the McGovern era? A reader said today's GOP split reminded him of the Democratic party split from the late 1960s through the 1980s. I wrote back to say: Yes, but the threats to bring all other public business to a halt were different. The reader replied:

    Maybe. Certainly the scale is different. But I'll never forget the day I watched Ron Dellums come out of a budget negotiation crowing and strutting over how he had beaten the President (Carter). That was the moment I fully realized that the Democratic party no longer existed as a party, in that it no longer had a collective sense of basic direction. It was simply a collection of interest groups most of which cared little about what happened to the party or the government so long as their narrow interests were attended to.

    What is different this time is the strong concentration of True Believers in the Republican party, and the history Obama has established in prior situations of being willing to cave on fundamental principles in pursuit of a grand bargain. The former is behind the GOP's apparent belief that any price is worth paying to cancel the ACA, including a worldwide depression, and the latter is behind their belief that it will in the end work.

    Several more after the jump. 

    More »

  • Et Tu, FT?

    One newspaper, straddling two different worldviews

    A few hours ago I suggested a primer for media coverage of the impending budget and debt-ceiling votes. Main point: the real reason we're contemplating another government shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis is the titanic struggle within one party, the Republicans, rather than the normal tussles between parties in familiar R-vs.-D mode.

    Therefore any story that sheds light on the varying factions and interests within conservatism generally -- Paul and Cruz and Rubio and Cantor and DeMint; Boehner and Rove and McConnell and the Kochs; Hannity and Limbaugh and Ailes; Newt and Jeb Bush and Kristol; plus whoever else -- helps us understand what's happening.

    And any story that presents this as a normal "both sides are to blame" recurrance of bipartisan gridlock, or as the object of rational-actor negotiation between Obama/Reid on one side and Boehner/McConnell on the other, says more about journalists' reflexive fear of not seeming even-handed than about the reality we should be trying to describe.

    The headline writers at the Financial Times today marvelously illustrate the uneven ways in which mainstream journalism is adapting its (our) conventions to these new realities. The screenshot at the top was from the FT's home page a little while ago. The two headlines boxed in red are classic "gridlock in Washington" / "everyone to blame" old-think formulations. Yet right in between them, conveniently highlighted with the green arrow, is a story by the FT's Stephanie Kirchgaessner whose headline boldly refers to the "Republican civil war" and whose opening clearly draws the connection between the GOP's inner struggles and the nation's fiscal fate:

    Idaho Falls lies more than 2,000 miles from Washington. But a local political fight that has gripped this community explains in large part why the US is once again teetering on the edge of a government shutdown and even default.

    The primary election fight, described by some as a battle for the soul of the Republican party, has pit congressman Mike Simpson, a longtime personal friend and ally of John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House, against a newcomer named Bryan Smith, who has won the backing of the most powerful conservative groups in Washington....

    Far from being a one-off phenomenon, the Idaho race shows why conservative but pragmatic Republicans like Mr Simpson, who are from districts where Democrats are almost irrelevant, have been pushed to the sidelines.

    Anyone who reads the story will understand that whatever the Obama and the Democrats are saying or offering is essentially irrelevant to the inner GOP drama. So the paper's headline writers are describing a world -- parties are "poles apart" and cannot "bridge the divide" -- that the same paper's reporters say no longer exists. Split-consciousness specimens like this will be great time-capsule elements to illustrate how rapidly the politics of our time is veering away from our familiar ways of understanding and describing it.

  • Another Set of Questions About Syria

    So that Errol Morris does not have to follow his documentaries on McNamara and Rumsfeld with one on the Obama team.

    A few minutes ago I posted the six-step pattern of pro-escalation rhetoric that Eric Martin laid out two years ago. That followed William Polk's lengthy and important 13-question examination of a strike on Syria. 

    Now on the Foreign Policy site, Tom Mahnken has listed six more questions about the administration's rationale and plans. Here's the importance of his list:

    Before Congress approves an attack, it should be sure the administration has a clear answer on each of these points. The public should expect comprehensible answers from the administration too. Not perfect or irrebuttable answers: especially in combat, things develop in unforeseeable ways. But the president should show that at a minimum he and his team have thought through, and can explain, each of these aspects. Mahnken's list:

    1. What objectives does the administration seek to achieve in Syria?
    2. How does it anticipate that the use of force will lead to the fulfillment of those objectives?
    3. What is the administration's theory of victory?  That is, what are the assumptions that link the use of military force to the achievement of victory?
    4. How does the administration believe that Syria will respond to the U.S. use of force?
    5. What does the administration believe could go wrong?  What unexpected things could happen?
    6. And finally, how does the administration anticipate that this will end?

    Now a related note, with bonus Donald Rumsfeld clip, from a reader who until recently worked at a DC organization that is generally pro-intervention in the Middle East. He raises a longer-term concern about what Rumsfeld used to call the "known unknowns":

    Assuming we do decide to intervene in Syria, and we do not destabilize Assad--the White House has explicitly ruled out regime change as a goal of intervention--the best we can hope for is a situation similar to Iraq from 1991-2003. In such a scenario--heavy sanction, regular weapons inspections (which ended in Iraq in 1998), and a no-fly zone--we'd probably have a tenuous 'peace' thru the end of the Obama administration, but there's no guarantee that the next president would support a system that leaves in place a brutal dictator who has shown himself unafraid to use chemical weapons on his own people and has been known to pursue nuclear weapons. The temptation to 'finish the job' might prove too much to resist, particularly if Assad decides to do something like take a shot at one of our jets patrolling the no-fly zone.

    It might sound far-fetched, but mission creep should be a very real concern. I encourage you to take a look at this clip from Errol Morris's new documentary to see how speculation, distrust, and misinformation turned the Iraq sanctions into the Iraq War. It's not hard to see how it could easily happen again.  


    Again, it's good for the country, and for the president himself, that he is taking this case to the Congress. Let's hear him answer questions like these, so that Errol Morris does not have to follow his "how did we get this so wrong?" documentaries about Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld with one on Obama and his team.

  • A Very Wise Decision by Obama

    He moves himself, and the country, out of a corner, with two important choices.

    [Please see hour-later update below. The first part was from real time during Obama's speech.]

    The two crucial parts of his announcement just now:

    1) No rush about doing whatever needs to be done with Syria. This is a punitive rather than a preventive action, which should be undertaken with deliberation and -- if and when it happens -- by surprise.

    2) Recognizing the higher wisdom -- for himself, for the country, for the world -- of taking this to the Congress.

    This is the kind of deliberation, and deliberateness, plus finding ways to get out of a (self-created) corner, that has characterized the best of his decisions. It is a very welcome change, and surprise, from what leaks had implied over the past two weeks.

    When there is a transcript, will do a brief annotation. To appreciate how far we have come, consider the lead front-page headline from the WaPo just yesterday.

    Update: I got a transcript, I spent half an hour going through it all with notations, then our blog system had some kind of glitch and everything disappeared. Dammit. I can't stand to re-do that, so I'll mention a couple of key sentences:

    "The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs [known not to be enthusiastic about another engagement] has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose. [Yes! An avoidance of the apparent rush; a recognition that in a punitive raid the advantage of time, and surprise, is on his side.] Moreover, the Chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now. [The structure of this sentence implying an ellipsis and leaving room for, "or whenever after that."]

    But having made my decision as Commander-in-Chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests, I'm also mindful that I'm the President of the world's oldest constitutional democracy. [This and the preceding paragraph, back to back, were the signal that Obama had made the two crucial choices. 1) There's no rush, and 2) involve the Congress.] I've long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And that's why I've made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress. [I stopped listening super-carefully at this point, because the big news was in.]

    Over the last several days, we've heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard. [And of course Obama understands that even many of those people, plus most of the rest, were actually hoping he would ignore them. That way they could complain about his arrogant imperial overreach now, and meanwhile avoid casting what can only be a difficult vote.] I absolutely agree. [Don't throw me in that briar patch!] So this morning, I spoke with all four congressional leaders, and they've agreed to schedule a debate and then a vote as soon as Congress comes back into session.... And all of us should be accountable [see above. Every single Representative and Senator will either have to vote to support the Administration, or have to explain a No vote the next time Assad gasses someone] as we move forward, and that can only be accomplished with a vote.

    I'm confident in the case our government has made without waiting for U.N. inspectors. I'm comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable. [A brush-away that is simultaneously off-hand, polite, reasonable-sounding, and utterly dismissive of the Security Council's uselessness in cases like this. And yet, as a reader pointed out, there is that significant "so far," allowing for the conceivability of a Russian or Chinese change.] ...

    Yet, while I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective. [This sentence deserves lapidary examination. The "I believe" / "I know" pairing, the assertion of presidential prerogative as a segue to requesting Congressional approval, the appeal to the high road. Nicely done.

    We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual. And this morning, John Boehner, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell agreed [When have we seen those ten words in that order? Or will see them again?] that this is the right thing to do for our democracy.

    If we ever resurrect the lost annotation, I'll rework it. The leitmotif was invoking several previous times in which Obama had shifted from lackluster and puzzling to being in command of his powers. Eg politically: the disaster of his first debate against Romney, versus his comeback in debates two and three. Strategically: falling for the Afghanistan surge argument in 2009, and then correcting course and reversing the policy by 2011. And now this: a ten-day period in which he seemed out of control, leading to what is strategically and politically a much wiser course.

    Also, from my friend Charles Stevenson:

    I don't think it's just a coincidence that Obama's request for congressional authorization for force came when, for the first time ever, all four statutory members of the National Security Council were former Senators.

    He is talking about Obama, Biden, Kerry, and Hagel.  

  • Public to White House: You Can Go It Alone, but You Shouldn't

    Make the case to Congress, and make them vote.

    This is a last-for-now recap of Syria reactions from readers and the world. 

    1) 'We don't know war.' Yesterday I quoted a very hostile response, from a serving U.S. military officer, to another reader's previous pro-intervention argument. That pro-intervention argument included the assertion that "we don't know war," modern American life being so far removed from the era of massive conscription and world war. Many readers who have served in today's war theaters wrote in to complain.

    The original pro-intervention reader, who has said that I should use his name, Tim Russo, asks the right of reply. Here is his response:

    As the target of your quoted officer, I find being told to "shut up" and "fuck you", a fine summation of the entire anti-intervention position.  Americans at large (the "we" I refer too) in fact do not know war. That members of the armed forces and their families are the only Americans who do is part of my point.

    Further, if you were able to reach into the grave and inform a World War I victim of mustard gas, that a treaty would be concluded in 1925 against the use of chemical weapons to forever prevent a repeat of his hideous death, and that almost 100 years later, a member of the military that treaty was created to protect, would hide behind George W. Bush's incompetent framing in Iraq to argue against its enforcement by telling others "Fuck you", that doughboy would weep.

    It is another cost of the Bush lies that chemical weapons killing children against every value, treaty, and international norm to which we are signatories, are met with nothing but regurgitations of Bush's logic, even to the sublime irony of being told to shut up.

    Do you not see how enslaved this argument is to Bush's? Every argument you make against intervention is how Bush built his lie. Must have proof. Must have "slam dunk" even. Must have UN. Must have Britain. Every one else shut up. Bush had, and did, all that. And it was a lie.

    If the lie is no longer there, why are you arguing within its entire framework? Why not argue this case on its own merits, instead of saying "shut up" and "fuck you", requiring us to cross the same fraudulent thresholds Bush set up for himself to tick like boxes on a checklist?

    We have an opportunity with Assad to reclaim the moral authority our country built over two centuries which Bush squandered in Iraq. We should take it.  The Syrian people are begging for it.

    2) Shut Up, He Explained. More on the lovely Ring Lardner line:

    I have a fondness for the full paragraph.
    "Are you lost, Daddy?" I asked tenderly. "Shut up," he explained." 
    ― Ring Lardner, The Yong Immigrunts

    3) "More Appropriate Comparison is Kosovo." A pro-intervention case from a reader in Europe:

    I live in Germany but was born and raised for the most part in America. I left the states in 2005 for [a UK university] and have been living abroad ever since. So its an interesting debate, .. particularly since I am now living in a country paralyzed by their own military history--so dubious about the prospect of military conflict, they´d rather buff the heels of China and Russia than get involved.

    You can examine the number of refugees and displaced people,  the number of whom are children,the number that have died. You can look at the images, the live videos--listen to pleading on the radio... But for those who don´t dampen to sensationalism, I can understand how the thought of being dragged into another war is enough to turn their ears and eyes off---at least this time around.

    But in arguing for intervention, I think its short sighted to associate Syria as similar or the same as Iraq and Afghanistan--a grouping that has little reality to the situation and more to do with the simple fact that its in the "Middle East". A word and place that is permanently warped in the American psyche to reflect the wars we have recently fought there and the terrorist attacks leveled against us on our own soil. Iraq was not in the middle of a violent and destructive civil war (that had already happened ten years earlier), like one of your respondents pointed out, Iraq, like other countries in the region, was stable albeit a dictatorship...

    A more appropriate comparison would be the wars of the 1990s in Bosnia and Kosovo, which were both cases where civil wars were occurring and where US intervention was strategically similar to the air strikes that Obama references now. [JF note: See Chuck Spinney on the limits of this comparison.] Neither Bosnia nor Kosovo provide outstanding examples of political transformation, Kosovo which I have visited is propped up by an omnipresent international guard and ethnic tensions in Bosnia-Herzegovina remain real. However, the grave injustices that were occurring there (genocide and mass rape) were extinguished as a result of intervention....

    With refugees and stories infiltrating communities around the world, I feel that there is a distinct responsibility for the global community to act. 

    4) When has "signaling" worked? The aforementioned Chuck Spinney notes this passage, as I did, from President Obama's interview about Syrian options, with the PBS Newshour:

    "If, in fact, we can take limited, tailored approaches, not getting drawn into a long conflict -- not a repetition of, you know, Iraq, which I know a lot of people are worried about -- but if we are saying in a clear and decisive but very limited way, we send a shot across the bow saying, stop doing this, that can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term," the president said.

    That would send the Assad regime "a pretty strong signal, that in fact, it better not do it again."

    Spinney responds, in an email:

    Now ask yourself three questions: 

    (1) When was the last time this type of signalling worked? (hint - begin with Vietnam)  

    (2) Given the twin failures of five-years of Obama's "limited tailored" approach to the drone wars to (a) alter the behaviour of our adversaries in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia: and to (b) extricate the United States from a strategic decision-making process that is driving up deeper into the state of perpetual war launched by his predecessor;  how can the President really believe what he is saying?

    (3) If he does not believe what he is saying, what political pressures (including home grown pressures) are driving his march to folly?  (hint: these pressures do not include public opinion, which is decidedly against intervention)

    5) OK, Mr. Wise Guy, what's your idea? I don't know the answer to Spinney's last question. But if I am going to be critical of the rush to intervene, what's my plan?

    As noted from the start, every choice about Syria is bad and tragic. By standing aloof, the U.S and the Western world have overseen the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocents. By getting involved, we might make things even worse. The reason U.S. presidents look a generation older when they leave office than when they arrive is that they face an endless string of impossible choices like this. Any decision the U.S. makes will leave death and disorder in its aftermath.

    But if I have to be "for" something, what would it be? 

    • A crystal-clear argument from the White House that what is different now is the (apparently) deliberate use of chemical weapons on civilians. That, and that alone, is the reason the U.S. is considering something now it had ruled out before. The slaughter in Syria is horrible, but the U.S. and Britain decided long ago that it was not a casus belli. Defending this "international norm" is the pure case the president should make.
    • Since any "defending norms" action would be punitive rather than immediately preventive, there is no reason to rush.  This frenzied DC talk about "will it happen over the weekend?" or "the ships are in position and ready to strike" reminds me overwhelmingly of the mood in January and February 2003. We've got this big force ready to be used: Let's go! Punishment, like revenge, is best administered with cold deliberation, not in a panicky rush. 
    • Make the case to Congress. In case that is not clear enough, MAKE THE CASE TO CONGRESS, AND MAKE THEM VOTE. 

      Today's Congress is dysfunctional, polarized, and showboating. But it still is, you know, one branch of government, and the one that theoretically has the power to declare war. I recognize the difference between quick, limited engagements, for which a president needs latitude, and multi-year land wars. But Senator Obama, and constitutional-law lecturer Obama, were well aware of the danger of the post-World War II drift toward endless, undeclared, Presidentially ordered hostilities around the world. Since there is no reason to rush, the President has everything to gain by formally involving the legislative branch.
    • Everything to gain? Yes, everything. Something about this undertaking will go wrong, even if overall it succeeds. People will die; blunders will occur; fingers will be pointed (Benghazi); investigations and denunciatory speeches will ensure. Since all choices about Syria are bad, force the Congress to face those choices. Make them share the responsibility. Obama the citizen/scholar would understand why this is wise. Obama the politician presumably does as well.
    • What if Congress votes it down? Then they vote it down -- and we shouldn't attack. This is how a democratic republic is supposed to work. If an Administration cannot convince the public and their representatives that we should use military force, then we shouldn't use it.
    • Simultaneously make and keep on making the "international norms" case to the rest of the world. Russia will never go along, nor China as well. But if we demonstrate that we are being deliberate in our decisions, and spell out exactly the grounds and limits of what we have in mind, we have a far better choice of amassing and maintaining a coalition for the goals we care about, than if Obama "goes it alone."  This guarantees that the international subject of debate will become a "false equivalence" balance between the excesses of Assad and the excesses of the United States. 

    I write the list above in full confidence that Barack Obama, 12-dimensional chess player, has already thought through every move far more quickly and thoroughly than I have. Thus I am left with this puzzle. Why is he doing this? The leaking of the counter-attack plans, the hemming himself in with the "red line," the "who cares about the Congress, I'm going ahead!" all suggest a recklessness and, frankly, a foolishness that I don't associate with Barack Obama even in his least effective phases:

     To go into even "limited" war purely on his own authority, with no engagement from the Congress, in the teeth of U.S. public opposition, and after a (democratic) decision the other way by his major ally -- this is unwise in general and completely puzzling from Obama. Let us hope he reconsiders while he can.

    UPDATE After the jump, another reader's view.

    More »

  • Here's a Wild Idea About Syria: Make the Case to Congress

    It would be better for America if Congress had to consider the arguments for military action. It would be better for Obama too.

    Now that I think about it, I kind of see how that could happen. You bomb a country, and the next thing you know you are pulled into a war. Good thing we have experts to help us connect the dots. 

    (Actually, apart from the Onion-esque headline, the contents of this front-page piece from today's WaPo are excellent, based on interviews with real military experts about the unforeseen and unforeseeable consequences of "limited" and "surgical" military actions.)

    Here's a note just now from another genuine expert, my friend and one-time teacher Charles Stevenson, long of the National War College and the Senate Armed Services Committee staff: 

    I share your concerns about the consequences of punitive strikes against Syria -- too weak to change the military situation yet making America militarily involved with all manner of risky consequences.
    I don't believe the President really needs congressional approval for a deliberately short and limited set of attacks on Syria, though he obviously should consult with congressional leaders. I also doubt that the current Congress could give advice and consent in a timely or coherent way, given the hyperpartisanship there and its failure to do more than bluster at the time of the Libyan raids.
    On the other hand, I'm pleased that Britain, which lacks our explicit constitutional provisions for war powers, is still going to have a parliamentary vote on the issue. I wish we would do the same.

    To Stevenson's proposal in the third paragraph: No kidding. And Obama himself should be the first to grasp the point. Completely apart from the procedural nicety of involving the rest of the government in authorizing the use of force, he has a compelling political interest in spreading the responsibility for this decision.

    Even if Obama has already made up his mind to launch a strike, and even if that operation goes perfectly, something about it will go wrong. Messages will get blurred and bungled; the fog of war will interfere; innocents will be killed. How many people planning the bomb-Serbia campaign in 1999 imagined that it would create a crisis between the U.S. and China, because of the mistaken bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade?

    Obama can't know what exactly will happen if he launches a strike. But he should know, for sure, that even the cleanest intervention will bring mistakes, tragedies, and eventual blame. Therefore it should be 100% in his interest to share responsibility for the decision before it is solely his. As Charlie Stevenson points out, the Brits don't have to do this, but the Cameron government is bringing it to a vote. Of course that works more easily in a Parliamentary system, where he can rely on a disciplined majority, than in our current dysfunctional mess. But it makes sense in any democracy, even ours. 

    UPDATE: Please also read William Pfaff's analysis of the terrible trap Obama created for himself with his "red line" statement last year. Heart of the argument:

    When Barack Obama foolishly remarked last fall that if the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria made use of chemical weapons... it would cross a “red line” so far as the American government was concerned. His statement implied that the United States is in charge of international war and peace.

    The obvious threat was that the United States would intervene in the war. How it would intervene, with what means, to what objective, he did not say.... 

    One assumes that in speaking so casually and recklessly about a red line in Syria, President Obama failed to grasp -- how could he have done so? – that he was handing his Republican and neo-conservative opponents a primed bomb with which, as they certainly instantly understood, they could destroy him politically if there were a chemical attack and Mr. Obama did not go to war in Syria.

    He was doing something else. He was giving the same bomb to any other international actor who might seek advantage in an American intervention in Syria that would spread the war, possibly to President Assad’s regional allies, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, already active clandestinely.... 
  • What Mattered in Obama's Speech Today: Ending the Open-Ended 'War on Terror'

    Passed when the Pentagon and World Trade Center rubble were still smoking, the AUMF has been the basis for everything since.

    This speech was very long -- nearly 7000 words, even longer than my profile of Jerry Brown! And I didn't expect anyone to listen to me read my article aloud. Also, I am not going to deal with the part of the speech that has been most thoroughly discussed: changes, or not, in the administration's drone policy.

    Instead I'll focus on a part of the speech that I think matters even more: his argument that the time has come to end the "war on terror." And, even more important, to bring an end to the "Authorization for Use of Military Force," which the Congress passed while the rubble of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was still smoking and which has been the basis for the wars, detention, killings, and torture carried out in the 11+ years since then.

    I am long on record in arguing that, even though America will continue to face threats and endure attacks including from Islamic-motivated extremists, it needs to move off the open-ended, permanent-war footing that was used to justify invasions and constraints on civil liberties. Yes, there will still be attacks, perhaps (I hope not) even as horrific as the recent one in London. But we do not let the tens of thousands of annual highways deaths justify banning cars; nor the toll of alcohol justify a new Prohibition; nor take an absolutist approach to a range of other risks, starting with guns. So too with "terror" risks. We cannot end them, but we don't have to be driven mad by them.

    I thought that was a case Obama was building toward today. Parts of the speech I noted, with occasional commentary in brackets [like this]:

    1) How we got here, and at what cost:

    And so [after 9/11] our nation went to war. We have now been at war for well over a decade....

    Meanwhile, we strengthened our defenses - hardening targets, tightening transportation security, and giving law enforcement new tools to prevent terror. Most of these changes were sound. Some caused inconvenience. [TSA} But some, like expanded surveillance, raised difficult questions about the balance we strike between our interests in security and our values of privacy [good to have a president noting this tension]. And in some cases, I believe we compromised our basic values - by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law. [Even better to have this noted.]

    2) It's not just about "keeping America safe":

    From our use of drones to the detention of terrorist suspects, the decisions we are making will define the type of nation - and world - that we leave to our children.

    So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us [the post-9/11 era crystallized] mindful of James Madison's warning that "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." [Wish I had remembered this quote in some of my previous articles.]

    3) Thank you: talking to us as if we were grown-ups.

    Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror.

    4) Putting today's threats in perspective:

    While we are vigilant for signs that these groups may pose a transnational threat, most are focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based. That means we will face more localized threats like those we saw in Benghazi.

    5) A very important sentence, helpfully highlighted by me:

    Lethal yet less capable al Qaeda affiliates. Threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad. Homegrown extremists. This is the future of terrorism. We must take these threats seriously, and do all that we can to confront them. But as we shape our response, we have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11.

    This is part of the long sweep of American history.

    6) Again, let's match the problems of the moment to the tradition of the centuries:

    Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless 'global war on terror' - but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America

    7) There is more to what is going on than the effectiveness of drone strikes:

    To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.

    8) I cannot overemphasize how important this passage  is:

    All these issues remind us that the choices we make about war can impact - in sometimes unintended ways - the openness and freedom on which our way of life depends. And that is why I intend to engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing...

    So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF's mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. [See also this.]

    I won't go into Gitmo, nor Obama's (correct) argument that this facility must be closed down.  But I will mention (9) his peroration:

    America, we have faced down dangers far greater than al Qaeda. By staying true to the values of our founding, and by using our constitutional compass, we have overcome slavery and Civil War; fascism and communism.... But because of the resilience of the American people, these events could not come close to breaking us.

    What I hate, hated, about the "post-9/11" era was the idea that this threat eclipsed all others America had faced, and justified the abrogation of liberties and principles we had defended through the centuries. These are complex trade-offs. Think of having a president who recognizes their complexity -- and comes down on the side of liberties.


    I am remiss in not noting the ending, (10):
    Thank you. God Bless you. And may God bless the United States of America.

    Sigh. But again, this was a speech for grown-ups.

  • The Impossibility of Being Barack Obama

    Every now and then we see how hard his balancing act is.

    I half-heard the president's commencement address at Morehouse when coming back to D.C. this weekend. I saw a clip of it again late last night and thought: this is another sample and reminder of Barack Obama's reserves of rhetorical strength. Like his other big, punctuating speeches (as I have discussed previously here, here, here, and elsewhere), this one appealed to both the mind and the heart; it built an argument over a span of paragraphs rather than in isolated phrases; and it grew from Obama's position as a man part of, but also apart from, America's normal racial classifications.

    Before I had a chance to write anything about the speech, I read two other reactions. One was from my former colleague Andrew Sullivan, who was defending the speech against idiotic accusations that it was "race-baiting" and too black. The other was from my current Atlantic colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates, who criticized the speech for being too hectoring of Obama's Morehouse audience in a way he wouldn't have been at Dartmouth or Stanford:

    Barack Obama is, indeed, the president of "all America," but he also is singularly the scold of "black America."

    As I told Ta-Nehisi by phone this evening, I naturally cut Obama more slack on this point than he does. (And of course I hear the speech differently too.) We all take a different tone in setting expectations for "our own." I can hold Americans overseas to a different standard than I would Russians or Japanese; I can harangue (and have!) my colleagues in the press about why we should do better; I expect something from myself and my kids I wouldn't expect from you and your kids, and so on. The challenge for Obama, exactly as Ta-Nehisi pointed out, is that he is simultaneously addressing all Americans as his own (apart from those who consider him alien) while also in this speech addressing as his own the most historically distinct subset of our population.

    So, I was glad to see Andrew Sullivan's defense; and I understood the logic of Ta-Nehisi Coates's frustrated criticism. Which led me to the main conclusion: about the near-impossibility of the tightrope act Barack Obama is attempting as America's first non-white president, and the unusual combination of virtuosity (as with this speech) and unflappability (as with criticism of the speech) with which he has mainly carried it off.

    I increasingly think of Obama as walking a tiny, little rope suspended across a Grand Canyon. Through four and a half years he has mainly kept his footing, in a way that becomes cumulatively surprising -- and I say that even while disagreeing with many of his policies, notably including the recent security-state extensions.  Every now and then, as with this speech, we see how hard what he is doing is.

  • A More Impressive Win Than in 2008, and a More Important One

    The presidential election of 2008 mattered. This one matters more.

    I was up very late last night and have been out of reach of the info-sphere until just now today. So I don't know whether what I'm about to say is, on the one hand, already conventional wisdom -- or on the other, thoroughly debunked. Or in between. But for what it's worth:

    Barack Obama's election four years ago was, by definition, more historic than his reelection last night.

    But his second win last night was more impressive than his first, and probably more important.

    Why was it more impressive?

    • Marriage vs. first date. It was more impressive because he had to run this time as the candidate of half-a-loaf, compromised, you-know-the-goods-and-bads-of-me reality than as the vessel of unbounded, defined-upward-by-each-observer hope.

    • Economic headwinds vs. tailwinds. It was more impressive because four years ago the world economic collapse, plus the rubble of the Bush administration, pulled the John McCain campaign down -- beyond McCain's own mistakes and limitations. This time economic problems were Obama's burden rather than part of his rationale.

    • 'We gave those people a chance.' It was more impressive because of the change in racial dynamics. Among non-whites, any "disappointment" in Obama may have been offset by what Ta-Nehisi Coates has often described: the greater importance for African-Americans of a re-election for this president even than of his getting there the first time. (And in any case, black support was overwhelming both times, and Latino support seems to have risen because of the GOP's anti-immigrant madness.) But very shrewd Republican messaging -- "You tried. He tried. It isn't working" -- appealed to many white voters' sense that they had proved their color-blindness by voting for him once. No one would think worse of them for deciding that the experiment had failed.

    And how could it be more important -- apart from the obvious effect of doubling the span of years in which Obama can expect to influence policy?

    • Effect on collective memory. As I argued earlier this year, we tut-tut presidents who care too much about re-election. But in fact a re-election run affects everything about how we view their entire tenure. Defeat casts a retrospective air of failure on everything they did, including the successes (e.g. Jimmy Carter with China normalization and Camp David.) Victory makes even the mistakes seem like mere bumps in the road. Everything about Obama's approach to policy and politics will now be seen through this prism: yes, he had a mid-term setback in 2010, like those that Clinton and Reagan endured, but his strategies led to a 300+ electoral vote resounding win.

    • Learning on the job. I also argued in that previous piece that every new president "fails" at some part of the job he takes on, simply because no real human being has the range of skills required for all-fronts success in the presidency. The only sensible question, then, is whether a president learns and improves. I argued a few months ago that Obama is improving and would be a stronger second-term president than in his first. I still think that.

    • The Party itself. For the first time in my conscious life, the Democratic party is now more organized and coherent, and less fractious and back-biting, than the Republicans. It is almost stupefying to imagine that.

      But think about the facts: We've now had four of the past six presidential elections won by Democrats. In five of the past six, the Democrat has won the popular vote. The most effective advocate for the current Democratic incumbent was the previous Democratic president. The current president's toughest rival in the primaries is now his Secretary of State, and another former rival is his vice president. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, the nominee dared not even mention the existence of the previous Republican president. His rivals in the primary were tepid at best in shows of support. Democrats now disagree about a lot, from their relationship with Wall Street to the ethics of drone wars. But they are a more coherent whole than through most of their recent history -- and much more coherent than the Republicans.

    • Obamacare. Passing it was difficult, divisive, and important. Letting it take effect -- which was one of the clearest differences between the implications of a second Obama and a first Romney term -- will permanently change the American social contract. I remember, as a school child, the hyper-bitter controversies about the socialist menace of Medicare, before Lyndon Johnson "rammed it down the country's throat" in 1965. Obviously now the only political risk is seeming to oppose Medicare. Something similar will be true about these further steps toward universal coverage once they go into effect.

    • What economics can mean for politics. Without belaboring the case, most people expect the next four years to be better economically than the past four. At a minimum, Obama won't see many millions of jobs disappear in the first six months of his term. In political terms, a rising economy inevitably tends to validate the policies in place when it occurs. (Skeptical? Think of terms like "the Reagan boom.") Presiding over a better four years will give Obama an object lesson for talking about the importance of investment, public-private partnerships, "growing from the middle," etc. -- as they did for Bill Clinton. Presiding over those years would have given Mitt Romney a Reagan-like opportunity to talk about the prime-mover virtues of tax cuts.

    • The Supreme Court. When the campaign memoirs come out, maybe we'll get an explanation for why neither side was saying "Supreme Court! Supreme Court! Supreme Court!" at every stop. The fact is that the past two Democratic presidents gave us Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. The past two Republican presidents gave us Justices Souter, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito. Elections matter, and this one will, with four members of the Court now in their 70s.

    There's more, but that is my reaction the morning-after. Plus,the surprising impact of seeing all these names on the list of Senators in the 113th Congress. Few of these would have seemed to be complete gimmes earlier this year, and many would have seemed implausible long-shots: Tammy Baldwin (!), Sherrod Brown, Joe Donnelly, Martin Heinrich, Heidi Heitkamp (!!), Mazie Hirono, Tim Kaine, Claire McCaskill, Chris Murphy, Debbie Stabenow, John Tester (!!!), Elizabeth Warren.


    Sorry for many sleepiness-induced typos in first version of this piece, including "Dana" Stabenow. Sorry. She's a mystery writer.

  • Three Quick Points on Obama's Speech

    A speech that does the job

    Will try to write a "real" assessment at some point. For now:

    1) Citizen Obama. The most interesting "new"-ish approach in the speech was the theme that ran through the final one-third of it, about the importance and implications of "citizenship." Viz:

    As Americans, we believe we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights - rights that no man or government can take away. We insist on personal responsibility and we celebrate individual initiative. We're not entitled to success. We have to earn it. We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk-takers who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system - the greatest engine of growth and prosperity the world has ever known. [That is: we are for individuals, and for success. And now the pivot:]

    But we also believe in something called citizenship - a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations. [And on to explain the ramifications.]

    The reason this is interesting: It is a way to deal with the GOP's out-of-context "you didn't build that"  meme not by (1) matching its out-of-context-ness, with an offsetting "like to fire people" theme (as some DNC speakers did); nor (2) directly making the case for the value of public/private interactions, as Bill Clinton effectively did last night, but (3) attempting to change the terrain, or the game, with a new definition of terms. More later on the implications, but a very interesting re-casting of the debate.

    2) Mockery rather than anger. Ronald Reagan's "there you go again" line was so damaging against Jimmy Carter because it was amused-and-dismissive sounding, rather than angry at all. Obama managed to strike a similar "there you go again" amused/dismissive tone in talking about Romney's London-Olympic missteps and his team being "... new [after a pause, and with a grin] to foreign policy."

    3) How "false equivalence" works. My mailbox is swamped with messages from Republicans asking when "the media" will get on Joe Biden's speech tonight with the same list of factual errors they/we produced after Paul Ryan's "post-truth" convention speech last week. Also, when Biden will be attacked the way Ryan has been about his marathon claims.

    The answer to the second question is: Biden had his version of this problem back in the 1980s, when he got in trouble for appropriating anecdotes from a Neil Kinnock speech as if he'd experienced them himself. But people at the time didn't think that they had to find equal criticisms of, say, George H.W. Bush or Dick Gephardt; Biden attracted the criticism because he had created the problem.

    The answer to the first question is: If someone comes up with illustrations of Biden mis-stating facts as grossly as Ryan did in his speech, then he will deserve and get comparable grief for them. But the expectation in most of these notes, interestingly, is that it shouldn't matter whether there is any objective difference in who is bending the truth at any given time. If you point out problems "on one side," then you'd better find some equal and offsetting problem on the other, or else the game is rigged. Whether or not the problem is there.

    3A) On the speech overall: I thought it was not one of his best but that it did the job. "The job," in this sense, was having the party leave the convention feeling as if they had a case to present. I don't buy the argument that some of the home-run speeches of the convention -- by Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama, Deval Patrick, Julian Castro, Andrew Tobias, and others including in their particular ways John Kerry and Joe Biden -- "raised the bar" for Obama or "set him up for disappointment." At the Republican convention last week, speakers like Chris Christie and Marco Rubio were outright auditioning to be the candidate in 2016. That ambition depends on Romney's failure this year. Everyone at the DNC was pulling to get Obama and Biden across the line this year; each speech built on the others rather than competing with them for attention.

    And, OK, 4): Nice to hear a plain statement that climate change "is not a hoax." That is it for now.

  • Obama in Afghanistan: How This Looks Through the Reelection Lens

    Two different trips, in 2008 and in 2012: What a difference incumbency makes.

    I unavoidably missed the Obama speech from Afghanistan this evening. To catch up I naturally turn to our Steve Clemons for the foreign-policy summary -- and to Samuel Popkin for what the moment shows about the evolving pattern of a re-election run.

    In a first installment earlier today, Popkin stressed the under-appreciated fact that an incumbent president always runs for re-election with a different emphasis, strength, and public persona from the ones that carried him to victory four years earlier. If you think the Osama-killing, drone-strike-ordering, bank-rescuing, compromise-accepting Barack Obama of 2012 is different from the "Change We Can Believe In" / dreamy Hope-poster figure of 2008, you're right: that's how it always is, according to Popkin. Just now Popkin writes in to say that the speech this evening, and the likely response from Mitt Romney over the next few days, underscore the point:

    Obama's two visits to Afghanistan nicely illustrate the difference  between a challenger and an incumbent. 

    The highlight of Senator Obama's 2008 visit to Afghanistan was the three-point shot he hit and the high fives he got from the troops.  Now, President Obama will sign a treaty, and note the anniversary of the shot heard round the world that took out Bin Laden.
    Today he is the commander in chief and a statesman.  Today, Mitt is a very successful businessman and a former governor who disowned the healthcare plan that was once his crowning achievement.

    This is the kind of move that cuts off some lines of attack for Romney.   Note that there were two references [in Obama's speech, which I have not yet heard -- JF] to strengthening democratic institutions and no mention of democracy or liberty.   And a very clear emphasis, like an NPR pledge week. on matching grants: "as you stand up you will not stand alone."  I took that to imply if you don't stand up you will be on your own.
    I thought that the three-point shot from the 2008 campaign, at a base in Kuwait en route to Afghanistan, was actually quite significant, symbolically. Of course it didn't "mean" anything, but it is the kind of thing that goes right, when things are generally going right for a campaign, and that goes wrong when a campaign is star-crossed. (Star-crossed example: Gerald Ford, former national college all-star football player, stumbling down the steps to Air Force One before his unsuccessful re-election campaign.) To align this with Popkin's model, I should say that the three-point shot was an advantageous moment for a "challenger." A sober incumbent probably wouldn't expose himself to that kind of test.

  • False-Equivalence Watch: The Platonic-Ideal Form

    Want to see "false equivalence" in its pure form? Here you go.

    Yesterday Barack Obama went to the annual Associated Press luncheon and exhorted journalists to avoid the "false equivalence" syndrome in coverage of controversial events. If you've missed the previous 10 million items on this theme, you can read his speech or my precis of it. In short, the false equivalence problem is that although it's convenient and "objective"-seeming for reporters simply to quote "both sides" of a public issue, the results can be misleading when one of the sides is simply making things up.

    Today the same Associated Press published an article on his speech that perfectly exemplified the problem Obama was complaining about, and was all the more piquant for being presented as a "fact check." The subject was the now-infamous "individual mandate" provision of the administration's health-care plan.

    As Obama pointed out in his speech, the individual mandate originated as a conservative/Republican idea. Conservatives preferred it precisely because it was an alternative to government-run "single-payer" coverage, like Medicare or the VA. This was part of the reason Mitt Romney embraced the mandate in his health-care plan in Massachusetts. Yesterday Obama said:

    So as all of you are doing your reporting, I think it's important to remember that the positions I'm taking now, ... if we had been having this discussion 20 years ago, or even 15 years ago, would have been considered squarely centrist positions.  What's changed is the center of the Republican Party.

    Today the AP was back with its "fact check":

    [I]f Republicans have moved to the right on health care, it's also true that Obama has moved to the left. He strenuously opposed a mandate forcing people to obtain health insurance until he won office and changed his mind.

    This is false equivalence in its Platonic-ideal form. It's presented as being "objective" -- These politicians! They all just flip and flop! -- but in fact is deeply misleading about the realities. As Brian Beutler pointed out today on TPM, making things seem symmetrically unprincipled in this case requires either lack of awareness of, or knowing manipulation of, the basic facts.

    grassley.jpgYes, Obama's position on health care has changed. But his embrace of the "individual mandate" represents a move to the right, not leftward as the story claims. Before that, he had been in favor of (a) single-payer coverage, in his days as an Illinois politician, and (b) the "public option" during his 2008 primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. His decision to build "ObamaCare" around the individual mandate -- rather than on the public option or a single-payer concept -- reflected pressure on the administration to make the plan more "centrist," not more leftist or radical. When the switch to individual mandate was announced, by far the most heated criticism came from the left, on grounds that Obama had sold out supporters of the public option. Meanwhile, the likes of the impeccably conservative Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa (right) were saying that there was a "bipartisan consensus" in favor of the individual mandate compromise. So: the current Republican hostility to the individual mandate represents a rightward shift, and so too does Obama's embrace of the plan.

    Beutler sums up the achievement of this latest "fact check":

    His hosts [at AP] weren't listening -- and as a result they've made Obama's points about Republicans and the media for him....

    It's true that Obama campaigned against an individual mandate in 2008, only to embrace it -- however reluctantly -- after he became president. But to say that constitutes a move to the left betrays a lack of understanding about the origins and purpose of the individual mandate, and of Obama's broader evolution on health care reform.

    Wow. I my current affable mood, I will assume that with this item the AP was actually paying ironic homage to Obama's argument, and reminding him of the importance of continuing to make it. For more on today's false-equivalence news, see Greg Sargent in the Washington Post.

  • Reader's Guide to the State of the Union Address

    What the president said, and why he said it

    The item I posted just before this one is the full 7000+ word official text of President Obama's latest State of the Union address, with a generous amount of marginalia from me. The first few paragraphs are intro about the circumstances and timing of "Year Four" SOTU speeches, given at the beginning of a presidential re-election year.

    From that point on, if you do a mouse-hover over an underlined passage or anything that looks like a footnote, in blue, a little window will pop up showing side notes for that part of the speech.

    Thanks to the Atlantic's Jennie Rothenberg Gritz and Clarissa Matthews for making this work. In case you're interested, I started with a Word file of the official speech text and then inserted Word "comments" at the relevant points. We then ran it through a conversion routine to have the comments rendered into the HTML popups that you see.

  • Annotated State of the Union Speech

    Mouse over the underlined passages to view comments.

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    Overall this was an impressive and surprising speech, which accomplished the main goal of a "Year Four" State of the Union Address in a different way from what I had foreseen. Those goals include putting the political opposition in an awkward position in the run-up to the presidential election, and the speech did more of that than I expected.

    A "Year Four" SOTU is usually only the third State of the Union address a president gives. When a new president has been elected in November, there's typically no SOTU address the following January. The old, outgoing president has no further program to talk about, and the new one has said his piece in his inaugural address. Even though it seems—at least to me!—as if they're always happening, in fact we get only three SOTU addresses every four years, or seven of them in the eight years of a re-elected president's two term.

    At the beginning of Year Four for a first-term incumbent, which was the setting for Obama's speech this week, the purpose of the SOTU address is less to advance a program than to build a case. Although Year Four presidents, including Obama, often go through the motions of urging action on various bills, they know that very little is likely to occur—especially when, like Obama, they face a divided or opposition-controlled Congress. (It doesn't say much good about our legislative system that for fully one year out of four it's essentially out of commission, as all members of the House concentrate on re-election, along with a third of the Senators. But that's life.) These legislative "goals," like nearly everything Obama mentioned in this speech, really should be thought of as "for example" illustrations of the larger case the president is making for another chance at governing. In reality, everything a new president does from the day after his original election is done with an eye toward the re-election run. But starting in Year Four, that "four more years!" case is out in the open and legitimate. I don't think that the leitmotif slogan of this speech—"Built to Last"—is really going to make it as the slogan of the Obama 2012 campaign. (And for obvious reasons, they're not going to resurrect "Change We Can Believe In.") But the ideas and arguments in the speech do, I think, set up the main themes Obama and his team will stress.

    In a nutshell, that theme—the intended message of the speech—is: I am a reasonable guy, still hoping to be a uniter rather than a divider, and I have a plan to deal with the trends that make us all worry about our economy and society. Also, I'm very patriotic—and if you think I'm weak or pussy-footing, go ask Osama bin Laden about that.


    Remarks of President Barack Obama—As Prepared for Delivery

    State of the Union Address

    "An America Built to Last"

    Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

    Washington, DC

    As Prepared for Delivery -

    Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow Americans:

    Last month, I went to Andrews Air Force Base and welcomed home some of our last troops to serve in Iraq.  Together, we offered a final, proud salute [1]to the colors under which more than a million of our fellow citizens fought—and several thousand gave their lives.

    We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes [2]has made the United States safer and more respected around the world[3].   For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq.  For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden[4] is not a threat to this country[5]. Most of al Qaeda's top lieutenants have been defeated.  The Taliban's momentum has been broken, and some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home.

    These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness, and teamwork of America's Armed Forces.[6]  At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations.  They're not consumed with personal ambition[7]. They don't obsess over their differences.[8]  They focus on the mission at hand.  They work together[9]

    Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example[10]. Think about the America within our reach:  A country that leads the world in educating its people.  An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs.  A future where we're in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren't so tied to unstable parts of the world.  An economy built to last,[11] where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded. 

    We can do this.  I know we can, because we've done it before[12].  At the end of World War II, when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known.  My grandfather, a veteran of Patton's Army, got the chance to go to college on the GI Bill.  My grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line, was part of a workforce that turned out the best products on Earth[13]

    The two of them shared the optimism of a Nation that had triumphed over a depression and fascism.  They understood they were part of something larger; that they were contributing to a story of success that every American had a chance to share—the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement[14].

    The defining issue of our time[15] is how to keep that promise alive.  No challenge is more urgent.  No debate is more important[16].  We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by.  Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules[17].  What's at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values[18]. We have to reclaim them. 

    Let's remember how we got here.  Long before the recession, jobs and manufacturing began leaving our shores.   Technology made businesses more efficient, but also made some jobs obsolete.  Folks at the top saw their incomes rise like never before, but most hardworking Americans struggled with costs that were growing, paychecks that weren't, and personal debt that kept piling up.

    In 2008, the house of cards collapsed[19].  We learned that mortgages had been sold to people who couldn't afford or understand them.  Banks had made huge bets and bonuses with other people's money.  Regulators had looked the other way, or didn't have the authority to stop the bad behavior.

    It was wrong.  It was irresponsible.  And it plunged our economy into a crisis that put millions out of work, saddled us with more debt, and left innocent, hard-working Americans holding the bag.  In the six months before I took office[20], we lost nearly four million jobs.  And we lost another four million before our policies were in full effect.

    Those are the facts.  But so are these.  In the last 22 months, businesses have created[21] more than three million jobs.  Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005.  American manufacturers are hiring again, creating jobs for the first time since the late 1990s[22].  Together, we've agreed to cut the deficit by more than $2 trillion.  And we've put in place new rules [23]to hold Wall Street accountable, so a crisis like that never happens again. 

    The state of our Union[24] is getting stronger. And we've come too far to turn back now.  As long as I'm President, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum.  But I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies[25] that brought on this economic crisis in the first place. 

    No, we will not go back to an economy weakened by outsourcing, bad debt, and phony financial profits.  Tonight, I want to speak about how we move forward, and lay out a blueprint for an economy that's built to last—an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers, and a renewal of American values.[26]

    This blueprint begins with American manufacturing.

    On the day I took office, our auto industry was on the verge of collapse.  Some [27]even said we should let it die.  With a million jobs at stake, I refused to let that happen.  In exchange for help, we demanded responsibility.  We got workers and automakers to settle their differences.  We got the industry to retool and restructure.  Today, General Motors is back on top as the world's number one automaker[28].  Chrysler has grown faster in the U.S. than any major car company.  Ford is investing billions in U.S. plants and factories.  And together, the entire industry added nearly 160,000 jobs.   

    We bet on American workers.  We bet on American ingenuity.  And tonight, the American auto industry is back. 

    What's happening in Detroit can happen in other industries.  It can happen in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Raleigh.  We can't bring back every job that's left our shores.  But right now, it's getting more expensive to do business in places like China[29].  Meanwhile, America is more productive.  A few weeks ago, the CEO of Master Lock told me that it now makes business sense for him to bring jobs back home.  Today, for the first time in fifteen years, Master Lock's unionized plant in Milwaukee is running at full capacity.

    So we have a huge opportunity, at this moment, to bring manufacturing back.  But we have to seize it.  Tonight, my message to business leaders is simple:  Ask yourselves [30]what you can do to bring jobs back to your country, and your country will do everything we can to help you succeed. 

    We should start with our tax code.  Right now, companies get tax breaks for moving jobs and profits overseas.  Meanwhile, companies that choose to stay in America get hit with one of the highest tax rates in the world.  It makes no sense, and everyone knows it. 

    So let's change it.  First, if you're a business that wants to outsource jobs, you shouldn't get a tax deduction for doing it.  That money should be used to cover moving expenses for companies like Master Lock that decide to bring jobs home.

    Second, no American company should be able to avoid paying its fair share of taxes by moving jobs and profits overseas.  From now on, every multinational company should have to pay a basic minimum tax.  And every penny should go towards lowering taxes for companies that choose to stay here and hire here. 

    Third, if you're an American manufacturer, you should get a bigger tax cut[31].  If you're a high-tech manufacturer, we should double the tax deduction you get for making products here.  And if you want to relocate in a community that was hit hard when a factory left town, you should get help financing a new plant, equipment, or training for new workers.

    My message is simple.  It's time to stop rewarding businesses that ship jobs overseas, and start rewarding companies that create jobs right here in America.  Send me these tax reforms, and I'll sign them right away[32].

    We're also making it easier for American businesses to sell products all over the world.  Two years ago, I set a goal of doubling U.S. exports over five years.  With the bipartisan trade agreements I signed into law, we are on track to meet that goal—ahead of schedule.  Soon, there will be millions of new customers for American goods in Panama, Colombia, and South Korea.  Soon, there will be new cars on the streets of Seoul imported from Detroit, and Toledo, and Chicago.

    I will go anywhere in the world to open new markets for American products.  And I will not stand by when our competitors don't play by the rules.  We've brought trade cases against China at nearly twice the rate as the last administration—and it's made a difference. Over a thousand Americans are working today because we stopped a surge in Chinese tires[33].  But we need to do more.  It's not right when another country lets our movies, music, and software be pirated[34].  It's not fair when foreign manufacturers have a leg up on ours only because they're heavily subsidized.

    Tonight, I'm announcing the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit that will be charged with investigating unfair trade practices in countries like China.  There will be more inspections to prevent counterfeit or unsafe goods from crossing our borders.  And this Congress should make sure that no foreign company has an advantage over American manufacturing when it comes to accessing finance or new markets like Russia.  Our workers are the most productive on Earth, and if the playing field is level, I promise you—America will always win[35].

    I also hear from many business leaders who want to hire in the United States but can't find workers with the right skills.  Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job.  Think about that—openings at a time when millions of Americans are looking for work.   

    That's inexcusable.  And we know how to fix it.  

    Jackie Bray is a single mom[36] from North Carolina who was laid off from her job as a mechanic.  Then Siemens opened a gas turbine factory in Charlotte, and formed a partnership with Central Piedmont Community College.  The company helped the college design courses in laser and robotics training.  It paid Jackie's tuition, then hired her to help operate their plant.

    I want every American looking for work to have the same opportunity as Jackie did.  Join me in a national commitment to train two million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job.  My Administration has already lined up more companies that want to help.  Model partnerships between businesses like Siemens and community colleges in places like Charlotte, Orlando, and Louisville are up and running.   Now you need to give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers ok—places that teach people skills that local businesses are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing. 

    And I want to cut through the maze of confusing training programs, so that from now on, people like Jackie[37] have one program, one website, and one place to go for all the information and help they need.  It's time to turn our unemployment system into a reemployment system that puts people to work.   

    These reforms will help people get jobs that are open today.  But to prepare for the jobs of tomorrow, our commitment to skills and education has to start earlier.

    For less than one percent of what our Nation spends on education each year, we've convinced nearly every State in the country to raise their standards for teaching and learning—the first time that's happened in a generation. 

    But challenges remain[38].  And we know how to solve them.

    At a time when other countries are doubling down on education, tight budgets have forced States to lay off thousands of teachers.  We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000.  A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance.   Every person in this chamber can point to a teacher who changed the trajectory of their lives.  Most teachers work tirelessly, with modest pay, sometimes digging into their own pocket for school supplies—just to make a difference. 

    Teachers matter.  So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let's offer schools a deal.  Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones.  In return, grant schools flexibility:  To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren't helping kids learn.

    We also know that when students aren't allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma.  So tonight, I call on every State to require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn eighteen.

    When kids do graduate, the most daunting challenge can be the cost of college.  At a time when Americans owe more in tuition debt than credit card debt, this Congress needs to stop the interest rates on student loans from doubling in July.  Extend the tuition tax credit we started that saves middle-class families thousands of dollars. And give more young people the chance to earn their way through college by doubling the number of work-study jobs in the next five years.

    Of course, it's not enough for us to increase student aid.  We can't just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we'll run out of money.  States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets.  And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down.  Recently, I spoke with a group of college presidents who've done just that.  Some schools re-design courses to help students finish more quickly.  Some use better technology.  The point is, it's possible.  So let me put colleges and universities on notice:  If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down.  Higher education can't be a luxury—it's an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.

    Let's also remember that hundreds of thousands of talented, hardworking students in this country face another challenge:  The fact that they aren't yet American citizens.  Many were brought here as small children, are American [39] through and through, yet they live every day with the threat of deportation.  Others came more recently, to study business and science and engineering, but as soon as they get their degree, we send them home to invent new products and create new jobs somewhere else[40]

    That doesn't make sense.   

    I believe as strongly as ever that we should take on illegal immigration. That's why my Administration has put more boots on the border than ever before.  That's why there are fewer illegal crossings than when I took office. 

    The opponents of action are out of excuses.  We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform [41]right now.  But if election-year politics keeps Congress from acting on a comprehensive plan, let's at least agree to stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses, and defend this country.  Send me a law that gives them the chance to earn their citizenship.  I will sign it right away[42].

    You see, an economy built to last is one where we encourage the talent and ingenuity of every person in this country.  That means women should earn equal pay for equal work.  It means we should support everyone who's willing to work; and every risk-taker and entrepreneur who aspires to become the next Steve Jobs.[43] 

    After all, innovation is what America has always been about.  Most new jobs are created in start-ups and small businesses.  So let's pass an agenda that helps them succeed.  Tear down regulations [that prevent aspiring entrepreneurs from getting the financing to grow.  Expand tax relief to small businesses that are raising wages and creating good jobs.  Both parties agree on these ideas.  So put them in a bill, and get it on my desk this year[44].

    Innovation also demands basic research.  Today, the discoveries taking place in our federally-financed labs and universities could lead to new treatments that kill cancer cells but leave healthy ones untouched.  New lightweight vests for cops and soldiers that can stop any bullet.  Don't gut these investments in our budget.  Don't let other countries win the race for the future.  Support the same kind of research and innovation [45]that led to the computer chip and the Internet; to new American jobs and new American industries.  

    Nowhere is the promise of innovation greater than in American-made energy.  Over the last three years, we've opened millions [46]of new acres for oil and gas exploration, and tonight, I'm directing my Administration to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources.  Right now, American oil production is the highest that it's been in eight years.  That's right—eight years.  Not only that—last year, we relied less on foreign oil than in any of the past sixteen years.

    But with only 2 percent of the world's oil reserves, oil isn't enough.  This country needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source[47] of American energy—a strategy that's cleaner, cheaper, and full of new jobs. 

    We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly one hundred years, and my Administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy.  Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade.  And I'm requiring all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use.  America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.

    The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don't have to choose [48]between our environment and our economy.  And by the way, it was public research dollars, over the course of thirty years, that helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock [49]- reminding us that Government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground.

    What's true for natural gas is true for clean energy.  In three years, our partnership with the private sector has already positioned America to be the world's leading manufacturer of high-tech batteries.  Because of federal investments, renewable energy use has nearly doubled.  And thousands of Americans have jobs because of it. 

    When Bryan Ritterby[50] was laid off from his job making furniture, he said he worried that at 55, no one would give him a second chance.  But he found work at Energetx, a wind turbine manufacturer in Michigan.  Before the recession, the factory only made luxury yachts.  Today, it's hiring workers like Bryan, who said, "I'm proud to be working in the industry of the future."

    Our experience with shale gas shows us that the payoffs on these public investments don't always come right away.  Some technologies don't pan out; some companies fail.  But I will not walk away [51]from the promise of clean energy.  I will not walk away from workers like Bryan.  I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China or Germany because we refuse to make the same commitment here.  We have subsidized oil companies for a century.  That's long enough.  It's time to end the taxpayer giveaways to an industry that's rarely been more profitable, and double-down[52] on a clean energy industry that's never been more promising.   Pass clean energy tax credits and [53]create these jobs.   

    We can also spur energy innovation with new incentives.  The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change.  But there's no reason why Congress shouldn't at least set a clean energy standard that creates a market for innovation.  So far, you haven't acted.  Well tonight, I will[54].  I'm directing my Administration to allow the development of clean energy on enough public land to power three million homes.  And I'm proud to announce that the Department of Defense, the world's largest consumer of energy, will make one of the largest commitments to clean energy in history—with the Navy purchasing enough capacity to power a quarter of a million homes a year.

    Of course, the easiest way to save money is to waste less energy.  So here's another proposal:  Help manufacturers eliminate energy waste in their factories and give businesses incentives to upgrade their buildings.  Their energy bills will be $100 billion lower over the next decade, and America will have less pollution, more manufacturing, and more jobs for construction workers who need them.  Send me a bill that creates these jobs. 

    Building this new energy future should be just one part[55] of a broader agenda to repair America's infrastructure.  So much of America needs to be rebuilt.  We've got crumbling roads and bridges.  A power grid that wastes too much energy.  An incomplete high-speed broadband network that prevents a small business owner in rural America from selling her products all over the world. 

    During the Great Depression, America built the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge.  After World War II, we connected our States with a system of highways.  Democratic and Republican administrations invested in great projects that benefited everybody, from the workers who built them to the businesses that still use them today[56].

    In the next few weeks, I will sign an Executive Order clearing away the red tape that slows down too many construction projects.  But you need to fund these projects.  Take the money we're no longer spending at war, use half of it [57]to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home.

    There's never been a better time to build, especially since the construction industry was one of the hardest-hit when the housing bubble burst.  Of course, construction workers weren't the only ones hurt.  So were millions of innocent Americans who've seen their home values decline.  And while Government can't fix the problem on its own, responsible homeowners shouldn't have to sit and wait for the housing market to hit bottom to get some relief.  

    That's why I'm sending this Congress a plan that gives every responsible homeowner the chance to save about $3,000 a year on their mortgage, by refinancing at historically low interest rates.  No more red tape.  No more runaround from the banks.  A small fee on the largest financial institutions[58] will ensure that it won't add to the deficit, and will give banks that were rescued by taxpayers a chance to repay a deficit of trust. 

    Let's never forget:  Millions of Americans who work hard and play by the rules[59] every day deserve a Government and a financial system that do the same.  It's time to apply the same rules from top to bottom:  No bailouts, no handouts, and no copouts.  An America built to last [60]insists on responsibility from everybody. 

    We've all paid the price for lenders who sold mortgages to people who couldn't afford them, and buyers who knew they couldn't afford them.  That's why we need smart regulations to prevent irresponsible behavior.  Rules to prevent financial fraud, or toxic dumping, or faulty medical devices, don't destroy the free market.  They make the free market work better.[61]

    There is no question that some regulations are outdated, unnecessary, or too costly.  In fact, I've approved fewer regulations in the first three years of my presidency than my Republican predecessor did in his.  I've ordered every federal agency to eliminate rules that don't make sense.  We've already announced over 500 reforms, and just a fraction of them will save business and citizens more than $10 billion over the next five years.  We got rid of one rule from 40 years ago that could have forced some dairy farmers to spend $10,000 a year proving that they could contain a spill—because milk was somehow classified as an oil.  With a rule like that, I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk[62].   

    I'm confident a farmer can contain a milk spill without a federal agency looking over his shoulder.  But I will not back down from making sure an oil company can contain the kind of oil spill we saw in the Gulf two years ago. I will not back down from protecting our kids from mercury pollution[63], or making sure that our food is safe and our water is clean.  I will not go back to the days when health insurance companies[63a] had unchecked power to cancel your policy, deny you coverage, or charge women differently from men. 

    And I will not go back to the days when Wall Street was allowed to play by its own set of rules[64].  The new rules we passed restore what should be any financial system's core purpose:  Getting funding to entrepreneurs with the best ideas, and getting loans to responsible families who want to buy a home, start a business, or send a kid to college.

    So if you're a big bank or financial institution, you are no longer allowed to make risky bets with your customers' deposits.  You're required to write out a "living will" that details exactly how you'll pay the bills if you fail—because the rest of us aren't bailing you out ever again[65].  And if you're a mortgage lender or a payday lender or a credit card company, the days of signing people up for products they can't afford with confusing forms and deceptive practices are over.  Today, American consumers finally have a watchdog in Richard Cordray[66] with one job: To look out for them. 

    We will also establish a Financial Crimes Unit of highly trained investigators to crack down on large-scale fraud and protect people's investments.  Some financial firms violate major anti-fraud laws because there's no real penalty for being a repeat offender.  That's bad for consumers, and it's bad for the vast majority of bankers and financial service professionals who do the right thing.  So pass legislation that makes the penalties for fraud count. 

    And tonight, I am asking my Attorney General to create a special unit of federal prosecutors and leading state attorneys general to expand our investigations into the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis. This new unit will hold accountable those who broke the law, speed assistance to homeowners, and help turn the page on an era of recklessness that hurt so many Americans. 

    A return to the American values of fair play and shared responsibility will help us protect our people and our economy.  But it should also guide us[67] as we look to pay down our debt and invest in our future.

    Right now, our most immediate priority is stopping a tax hike on 160 million working[68] Americans while the recovery is still fragile.  People cannot afford losing $40 out of each paycheck this year.  There are plenty of ways to get this done.  So let's agree right here, right now:  No side issues.  No drama.  Pass the payroll tax cut without delay[69]

    When it comes to the deficit, we've already agreed to more than $2 trillion in cuts and savings.  But we need to do more, and that means making choices.  Right now, we're poised to spend nearly $1 trillion more on what was supposed to be a temporary tax break for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.  Right now, because of loopholes and shelters in the tax code, a quarter of all millionaires pay lower tax rates than millions of middle-class households.  Right now, Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary[70].  

    Do we want to keep these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans?  Or do we want to keep our investments in everything else—like education and medical research; a strong military and care for our veterans?  Because if we're serious about paying down our debt, we can't do both[71]

    The American people know what the right choice is.  So do I.  As I told the Speaker this summer, I'm prepared to make more reforms that rein in the long term costs of Medicare and Medicaid, and strengthen Social Security, so long as those programs remain a guarantee of security for seniors. 

    But in return, we need to change our tax code so that people like me[72], and an awful lot of Members of Congress, pay our fair share of taxes.  Tax reform should follow the Buffett rule:  If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30 percent[73] in taxes.  And my Republican friend Tom Coburn is right:  Washington should stop subsidizing millionaires.  In fact, if you're earning a million dollars a year, you shouldn't get special tax subsidies or deductions.  On the other hand, if you make under $250,000 a year, like 98[74] percent of American families, your taxes shouldn't go up.  You're the ones struggling with rising costs and stagnant wages.  You're the ones who need relief.   

    Now, you can call this class warfare all you want.  But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes?  Most Americans would call that common sense. 

    We don't begrudge financial success in this country.  We admire it.  When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it's not because they envy the rich[75].  It's because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don't need and the country can't afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference[76] -like a senior on a fixed income; or a student trying to get through school; or a family trying to make ends meet.  That's not right.  Americans know it's not right.  They know that this generation's success is only possible because past generations felt a responsibility to each other, and to their country's future, and they know our way of life will only endure if we feel that same sense of shared responsibility.  That's how we'll reduce our deficit.  That's an America built to last[77]

    I recognize that people watching tonight have differing views about taxes and debt; energy and health care.  But no matter what party they belong to, I bet most Americans are thinking the same thing[78] right now:  Nothing will get done this year, or next year, or maybe even the year after that, because Washington is broken. 

    Can you blame them for feeling a little cynical? 

    The greatest blow to confidence in our economy last year didn't come from events beyond our control.  It came from a debate in Washington over whether the United States would pay its bills or not.  Who benefited from that fiasco[79]?

    I've talked tonight about the deficit of trust between Main Street and Wall Street.  But the divide between this city and the rest of the country is at least as bad—and it seems to get worse every year.

    Some of this has to do with the corrosive influence of money in politics.  So together, let's take some steps to fix that.  Send me a bill that bans insider trading[80] by Members of Congress, and I will sign it tomorrow.  Let's limit any elected official from owning stocks in industries they impact.  Let's make sure people who bundle campaign contributions for Congress can't lobby Congress, and vice versa—an idea that has bipartisan support, at least outside of Washington. 

    Some of what's broken has to do with the way Congress does its business these days.  A simple majority is no longer enough[81] to get anything—even routine business—passed through the Senate. \ Neither party has been blameless in these tactics.  Now both parties should put an end to it.  For starters, I ask the Senate to pass a rule that all judicial and public service nominations receive a simple up or down vote within 90 days.[82]

    The executive branch also needs to change[83]. Too often, it's inefficient, outdated and remote.  That's why I've asked this Congress to grant me the authority to consolidate the federal bureaucracy so that our Government is leaner, quicker, and more responsive to the needs of the American people. 

    Finally, none of these reforms can happen unless we also lower the temperature in this town.  We need to end the notion that the two parties must be locked in a perpetual campaign of mutual destruction[84]; that politics is about clinging to rigid ideologies instead of building consensus around common sense ideas. 

    I'm a Democrat.  But I believe what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed:  That Government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more[85].  That's why my education reform offers more competition, and more control for schools and States.  That's why we're getting rid of regulations that don't work.  That's why our health care law relies on a reformed private market, not a Government program. 

    On the other hand, even my Republican friends who complain the most[86] about Government spending have supported federally-financed roads, and clean energy projects, and federal offices for the folks back home. 

    The point is, we should all want a smarter, more effective Government.  And while we may not be able to bridge our biggest philosophical differences this year, we can make real progress.  With or without this Congress, I will keep taking actions that help the economy grow.  But I can do a whole lot more with your help.  Because when we act together, there is nothing the United States of America can't achieve[87]

    That is the lesson we've learned from our actions abroad over the last few years.[88]

    Ending the Iraq war has allowed us to strike decisive blows against our enemies.  From Pakistan to Yemen, the al Qaeda operatives who remain are scrambling, knowing that they can't escape the reach of the United States of America.

    From this position of strength, we've begun to wind down the war in Afghanistan.  Ten thousand of our troops have come home.  Twenty-three thousand more will leave by the end of this summer. This transition to Afghan lead will continue, and we will build an enduring partnership with Afghanistan, so that it is never again a source of attacks against America.

    As the tide of war recedes, a wave of change has washed across the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunis to Cairo; from Sana'a to Tripoli.  A year ago, Qadhafi was one of the world's longest-serving dictators—a murderer with American blood on his hands.  Today, he is gone[89].  And in Syria, I have no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change can't be reversed, and that human dignity can't be denied[90].

    How this incredible transformation will end remains uncertain.  But we have a huge stake in the outcome.  And while it is ultimately up to the people of the region to decide their fate, we will advocate for those values that have served our own country so well.  We will stand against violence and intimidation. We will stand for the rights and dignity of all human beings—men and women; Christians, Muslims, and Jews.  We will support policies that lead to strong and stable democracies and open markets, because tyranny is no match for liberty.

    And we will safeguard America's own security against those who threaten our citizens, our friends, and our interests.  Look at Iran.  Through the power of our diplomacy, a world that was once divided about how to deal with Iran's nuclear program now stands as one.  The regime is more isolated than ever before; its leaders are faced with crippling sanctions, and as long as they shirk their responsibilities, this pressure will not relent.  Let there be no doubt:  America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table[91] to achieve that goal.  But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations.

    The renewal of American leadership can be felt across the globe.  Our oldest alliances in Europe and Asia are stronger than ever.  Our ties to the Americas are deeper.  Our iron-clad[92] commitment to Israel's security has meant the closest military cooperation between our two countries in history.  We've made it clear that America is a Pacific power, and a new beginning in Burma has lit a new hope[93]. From the coalitions we've built to secure nuclear materials, to the missions we've led against hunger and disease; from the blows we've dealt to our enemies; to the enduring power of our moral example, America is back[94]

    Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they're talking about[95].  That's not the message we get from leaders around the world, all of whom are eager to work with us.  That's not how people feel from Tokyo to Berlin; from Cape Town to Rio; where opinions of America are higher than they've been in years.  Yes, the world is changing; no, we can't control every event.  But America remains the one indispensable nation[96] in world affairs—and as long as I'm President, I intend to keep it that way. 

    That's why, working with our military leaders, I have proposed a new defense strategy that ensures we maintain the finest military in the world, while saving nearly half a trillion dollars in our budget.  To stay one step ahead of our adversaries, I have already sent this Congress legislation that will secure our country from the growing danger of cyber-threats[97].

    Above all, our freedom endures because of the men and women in uniform who defend it[98]. As they come home, we must serve them as well as they served us.  That includes giving them the care and benefits they have earned—which is why we've increased annual VA spending every year I've been President.  And it means enlisting our veterans in the work of rebuilding our Nation.

    With the bipartisan support of this Congress, we are providing new tax credits to companies that hire vets.  Michelle and Jill Biden have worked with American businesses to secure a pledge of 135,000 jobs for veterans and their families.  And tonight, I'm proposing a Veterans Job Corps that will help our communities hire veterans as cops and firefighters, so that America is as strong as those who defend her.

    Which brings me back to where I began[99].  Those of us who've been sent here to serve can learn from the service of our troops. When you put on that uniform, it doesn't matter if you're black or white; Asian or Latino; conservative or liberal; rich or poor; gay or straight[100].  When you're marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails.  When you're in the thick of the fight, you rise or fall as one unit, serving one Nation, leaving no one behind.

    One of my proudest possessions is the flag that the SEAL Team took with them on the mission to get bin Laden.  On it are each of their names.  Some may be Democrats.  Some may be Republicans.  But that doesn't matter.  Just like it didn't matter that day in the Situation Room, when I sat next to Bob Gates—a man who was George Bush's defense secretary; and Hillary Clinton[101], a woman who ran against me for president. 

    All that mattered that day was the mission.  No one thought about politics.  No one thought about themselves.  One of the young men involved in the raid later told me that he didn't deserve credit for the mission.  It only succeeded, he said, because every single member of that unit did their job—the pilot who landed the helicopter that spun out of control; the translator who kept others from entering the compound; the troops who separated the women and children from the fight; the SEALs who charged up the stairs.  More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other—because you can't charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there's someone behind you, watching your back.

    So it is with America.  Each time I look at that flag, I'm reminded that our destiny is stitched together like those fifty stars and those thirteen stripes.  No one built this country on their own.  This Nation is great because we built it together.  This Nation is great because we worked as a team[102].  This Nation is great because we get each other's backs[103].  And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard.  As long as we're joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong[104].

    Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.


    [1] This is the first of many places in the speech where Obama gives a "hey, dummies, remember what I did??" reminder in words just slightly subtler than those. "Last troops" and "final, proud salute" are the allusive ways of saying, "Remember, we have in fact formally withdrawn from Iraq—and despite the contractors and others who remain there, and whatever else may go wrong on scene, this is a significant step." The combination of "final" and "proud" is also artful: whatever the historians eventually say, for now there's only upside for Obama in casting withdrawal in the noblest possible light, especially as concerns the military. The current status of the military as the only un-critcizeable institution in America affects a lot about this speech—and raises issues beyond those I'll deal with here.
    [2] "Generation of heroes" is a nice touch. The subliminal reference is: "Greatest generation," doing all the heroics during the Depression and World War II. Then came the "worst generation," aka my fellow Baby Boomers, wrecking the country from their indulgent youth through the expensive impending retirement years. Now younger Americans—who went heavily for Obama 2008 but seem to have lost passion—can be cast in the role of another wave of greatness. Only a tiny fraction of America, and young America, is directly involved in these military efforts, but is rhetorically shrewd to cast it as a greatness of their times.
    [3] The Joint Chiefs of Staff, in attendance, stand along with everyone else in the ovation that follows this line. This must have been agreed in advance: most of the time, like the members of the Supreme Court who attend, the Chiefs are expected to sit there stolidly and not betray any potentially partisan reaction.
    [4] Get it???
    [5] John Boehner, sitting alongside Joe Biden behind Obama, is quicker to his feet in leading the standing ovation after this line even than Biden is. In general Boehner is a mensch during the speech. By the end he is looking as if he's ready for bed, or for a smoke, but he claps for more of Obama's lines than I would have expected, and he is on his feet for applause more than a few times.
    [6] You do have to admire this. The unavoidable political message is: "These things happened on my watch, and whatever credit there is I obviously deserve part of it, since I would have been blamed if things had gone wrong." But the explicit formulation not only uses the word "selflessness" but avoids personal claims of credit altogether, instead deflecting the glory onto America's Armed Forces. Which I don't think I have seen with that exact capitalization before.
    [7] I so wish that the camera had cut to Rep. Eric Cantor at this point. But alas...
    [8] Or maybe here, for Cantor?
    [9] These few paragraphs, and the mirroring passages at the end of the speech, constitute its main literary/rhetorical fancy-footwork. The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf doesn't like the implied collectivism of this argument -- see his post here. On the other hand, a year ago in the Washington Monthly, Heather Hulburt recommended, or foreshadowed, exactly this approach: arguing for American unity and teamwork by alluding to the one institution Americans in general and Obama's conservative opponents in particular do not want to criticize: the military. (Her article was here.) For now let's set aside arguments about whether Obama in fact has too "collectivist" a vision for America. Purely as rhetoric and persuasion, it's as good a way as he has to cast his arguments in terms the other side might accept. Plus, every president looks strongest and most symbol-of-America-like when appearing as head of state and Commander in Chief.
    [10] Boehner leads the clapping on this one, too. The Republican caucus must have decided that it is better to be good-cop than bad-cop (as in the old "we don't care about defaulting on the national debt" days) for the time being, or at least for purposes of being on camera during this speech.
    [11] Let's give this phrase its due: On rational grounds, it's a reasonable summary of the points Obama wants to make about long-term economic strategy. Also, the more it recalls the auto industry, GM (which originated the slogan), Detroit, and American manufacturing in general, the better for Obama. He can tell people: Remember, that Romney guy wanted to let GM go bust, but thanks to our help it has overtaken Toyota to be Number One again. So, that is all to the good. But it got only a smattering of applause on this first appearance, and you can't really see it on campaign posters or bumper stickers. My guess: a "good for the purposes of one speech only" slogan.
    [12] The recitation of how the U.S. economy REALLY developed in the decades of post-WW II dominance, and middle-class golden age, is essentially to Obama's policy arguments now. He is saying: public-private coordination made a difference then, and we need the same thing now. On the other hand, there is a kind of auto-text quality to this sort of historic reminder. All Democratic presidents, and some Republican politicians, have said something like this.
    [13] One of the rare sentences in the speech with a "Huhhh??" quality. Is he saying that the bombers were the finest on Earth? Probably they were, but I don't think that's the intended main point.
    [14] Face it: Obama will never really be convincing as an average-American economic populist. To me he is entirely convincing as an American -- someone whose story makes vivid the capaciousness of the country. But the "put a little away" doesn't ring true from him. Still had to say it, I suppose.
    [15] This is quite a bold claim, when you think about it. I agree with what he is saying -- but think how six or seven years ago any sentence containing the words "defining issue of our time" would also certainly end with "Islamic terrorism." Again, for my own personal taste, this is a welcome shift in emphasis -- but it's worth noting what a shift it is.
    [16] In case you missed the point earlier.
    [17] It is hard to tell, with the "Date Night" seating scheme of Dems and Repubs sitting together, but it appears that only Democrats stand up and cheer for this line.
    [18] Of course an allusion to the phrase that first brought him to national attention, in his Democratic convention speech of 2004: that we were not a country of Red states or Blue states, but the United States of America.
    [19] 1) Nice to be able to refer to it, without the need for explanation, as a "house of cards." 2) A worthwhile variation on the accurate, but getting-old-even-to-his-supporters "Bush wrecked the economy before I got here" point.
    [20] This makes it a little more personalized than in the previous paragraph -- and will sound like whining to his critics. Though of course it is accurate.
    [21] Good to present this as "businesses have created" rather than "we have created" or "our policies have created."
    [22] Remind me, who was in the White House then?
    [23] Interesting that we don't hear the polarizing name "Dodd Franks" -- and, by similar logic, we hear very little about the other most polarizing Obama policy, the health-care reform bill.
    [24] Here it is! Mattemashita, as they say at Kabuki performances when a long-expected line is uttered! Every speech is expected to contain this magic formulation, and Obama uses it twice, with interestingly different emphases. Here the point is: it's tough, but things are getting better. Which has to be the main theme of his campaign.
    [25] This paragraph is significant in several ways: it suggests a revived, "good cop," bi-partisan approach; it threatens a "bad cop" alternative, instead of the passivity that disappointed many of Obama's supporters in 2010 and early 2011; and it lays down a marker that Obama will portray the Republican program as what caused the problems the economy is still recovering from. Only Democrats are cheering this part.
    [26] Over the next 2000 words or so the policy meat-and-potatoes of Obama's program are laid out. Little or none of it will actually be put into law this year, and it has a suspiciouslyheavy reliance on tax incentives. My main emphasis in this note is rhetoric rather than policy, so I am not going to stop and weigh all the reasons why each proposal might be a good or bad idea.
    [27] Hmmm, would this be Gov. Romney?
    [28] Boehner gallantly cheers this too.
    [29] At this point it would have been useful for Obama to wave a copy of our current cover story to the crowd—the same one that all op-ed writers in the NY Times have been quoting.
    [30] Any imperative sentence including the words "ask" and "your country" is a deliberate reference, for better or worse, to an inaugural speech 51 years in the past.
    [31] Top that, Republicans!
    [32] "Right away" is a nice reference to the "jobs jobs jobs" speech last fall, which marked the beginning of a more aggressive tone from Obama. Eric Cantor is shown looking daggers at Obama after this line.
    [33] Another minor "Huhh???" line. Yes, it's about getting tough in a trade dispute over alleged Chinese dumping of tires, and voters in Ohio will recognize the allusion. But just as a sentence it sounds odd.
    [34] Hey, Hollywood, I still love you, despite that nasty SOPA bill!
    [35] This gets a huge standing cheer from everyone except the JCS and the Supremes -- but really, this is a blunt-instrument way to make the point that ours is a great country.
    [36] No offense to Ms. Bray or the others in the First Lady's box, but really, this schtick has outlived its time. Look up "Lenny Skutnik" if you want to know how ordinary citizens became rhetorical props for presidential addresses. It's corny, and I dream of an America in which a President gets through a SOTU without this faux-realism touch.
    [37] Maybe I am an ogre, but again I have had enough of this faux-personal touch.
    [38] This is the kind of sentence you write when you're really tired.
    [39] There is a very nice throaty emphasis on "American" in this sentence that sounds heartfelt -- and unlike the faux-populist touches undoubtedly is linked to his own story in life.
    [40] This whole section is policy-dense but delivered well.
    [41] For some reason, no crowd shot here, so we can't see who is cheering and who is sitting on his or her hands.
    [42] This "right away" riff is delivered very nicely -- almost in an Al Green tone.
    [43] Query: if the latest NYT story about NYT story about Apple's subcontracting problems in China had come out on the morning of the speech, would he have used this line? Probably so, but they would have had to think about it.
    [44] Not likely, for the record.
    [45] A Democratic president cannot remind people often enough that the government played a crucial role in the creation of the info-tech and Internet economies.
    [46] Criticize that, Republicans!
    [47] The passage that follows is an attempt to pull an Obama-style straddle on the politics of energy: reassuring Republicans that he's not ruling anything out, but reassuring Democrats with a firm defense of clean-energy investment, even including risky projects like Solyndra.
    [48] Oh, sure.
    [49] For Democrats this will be the next item on the list of crucial modern industries that wouldn't have happened without government investment. After genomics, GPS-and geospatial info, the semiconductor, and the Internet, we now have ... shale gas!
    [50] See "citizens as props," above.
    [51] Impresive doubling-down on Solyndra! Plus he even uses the term "double-down" at the end of the paragraph, leading to standing ovation from Democrats and silence from Republicans.
    [52] !
    [53] I feel phantom-limb pain in this sentence, for the missing "right away."
    [54] No More Mr. Nice Guy, part 118.
    [55] This is the classic and unvarnished "turning now to world affairs"-style transition sentence.
    [56] In the 2008 campaign, Obama didn't really have to make this case about the public role in private prosperity. Back then, his explicit argument against Hillary Clinton in the primary was "I had the judgment to be against the Iraq war"; and against John McCain in the general election the implicit argument to many Americans was, "I am an acceptable unifying figure." Now in order to justify what his Administration has done so far, from GM to health care, and also to prepare the ground for anything he hopes to do if re-elected, he needs to make the "government matters" case. Bill Clinton was the last national Democrat to spend serious time on this argument, which of course he presented in a folksier way.
    [57] Not sure how this math works out, but all the Dems cheer and none of the Republicans.
    [58] A truly comic art-trouvee moment here as the camera cuts to Timothy Geithner, who is looking pained.
    [59] Bill Clinton went far on exactly this phrase, so why not give it a try again?
    [60] This sentence illustrates why "built to last" isn't really going to, well, last as a campaign slogan -- but the sentiments are very similar to those that took Bill Clinton to two terms.
    [61] No response to this line, but it is the heart of the Democratic argument.
    [62] Scholars will try for centuries to understand how this line got into the speech. It wasn't even ad libbed: it was in the pre-released text. As I saw it coming, I started saying out loud: "No, no, he can't really be planning..."
    [63] Dog-whistle to enviros: The EPA's recent ruling restriction mercury emissions, especially from coal-fired plants, was one of their big victories in recent years.
    [63a] What Obama's opponents consider far and away the most objectionable of his achievements, passage of the "Obamacare" health-care program, makes only the briefest and most indirect of cameo appearances in this speech. Significantly, Obama emphasizes the consumer-protection aspects of the bill, rather than trying to re-argue the case of "individual mandates" and so on.
    [64] Good line; no crowd reaction.
    [65] This is a very bold line. I think it would have gotten a big response earlier in the speech. But it is getting late, and most people want this to be over.
    [66] Another dog-whistle to "the base" among Democrats: Cordray is of course one of Obama's (relatively few) recess appointments.
    [67] Another "we don't have time to make this fancy" transition sentence.
    [68] Something strange is going on here. Obama is of course referring to the showdown late last year about extending the payroll-tax cut. The Republican hard-liners, led by Eric Cantor, are generally considered to have "lost" that showdown—since Obama dared them to let it expire, and they flinched. But the camera (predictably) cuts to Cantor, and he (inexplicably) is shown cheering like crazy. Hmmm. Maybe he is back to thinking any tax cut is a good cut?
    [69] 1) Why is "without delay" better than "right away"? Just curious.2) Cantor and Boehner both are cheering this one. I am guessing it might happen.
    [70] Who of course we see on camera now.
    [71] This is the way for Obama to cast his argument: not that he's opposed to tax cuts for everyone, but that there are tradeoffs to make.
    [72] To the best of my knowledge it was Bill Clinton, in his post-presidential years of prosperity, who pioneered this touch: referring to "people like me" when discussing tax breaks and tax burdens at the top.
    [73] Hmm, is there any prominent candidate who has just released tax returns showing that on income of more than 10 million he paid tax of less than 15% ? The speechwriters are not earning their pay if they haven't thought about this.
    [74] Just curious: if the math worked out so that families with incomes under $250,000 represented 99% rather than 98% of the population, would Obama dare talk about "the 99%"? If the math fit, I think he should: he doesn't have to say "the" 99%, but by using the number he would send a signal.
    [75] Hmm, I wonder who has used this language about "envy" recently?
    [76] Again it is important for Obama's side that he point out the tradeoffs. In principle, everyone's taxes should be cut. But here are the real implications....
    [77] I've got the message!
    [78] You never want to use this kind of line in a speech, because it invites subversive responses. I was thinking at just that moment: It is nearly 10pm, we haven't talked foreign policy yet, it's time to wrap things up!
    [79] Boehner looks stoic. No cut-away to Cantor.
    [80] 1) It is incredible that this is even an issue. 2) It is more incredible that there seems to be some booing from the floor. Did anyone have a camera on Rep. Joe Wilson?
    [81] Well, three years after his inauguration, it's not too early for him to be talking about the menace of the filibuster!
    [82] This is a good, and overdue, idea. Next question: what's the "or else" provision if the Senate minority doesn't agree to this change?
    [83] Huge and not-entirely-sought ovation.
    [84] Isn't it pretty to think so?
    [85] Republicans start the cheering for this one, but Dems blunt them by standing up too.
    [86] I am sure he can name names on this one, which would be amusing during the campaign.
    [87] Showing the undiminished role of ritual assertions, this gets a huge standing ovation.
    [88] Another "it's getting late, we've got to switch to foreign policy" transition passage.
    [89] Understated coldness, as with the bin Laden reference. Obama doesn't want to make "honey badger" his campaign mascot, but "honey badger is a badass" is the idea  he's getting across.
    [90] Somewhat unexpected standing ovation for this line.
    [91] It's too late to explore this whole topic, but this is the formula U.S. presidents have to stick with in murky situations like this. "Strategic ambiguity" is one fancy name for it: to say more, or less, would be destabilizing in itself. So a president, Democrat or Republican, conceals his cards.
    [92] He ad-libs a repetition, "and I mean iron-clad." In case you were wondering.
    [93] This is a classic State of the Union line. On the merits, of course it is important to recognize what has happened in Burma. But in the negotiations before a SOTU, petitioners and officials from every part of the government are saying that it will be a huge problem if topic X or Y is not mentioned. So now no one can say that Burma "went unmentioned" in the speech,.
    [94] Huge ovation here, too. Nothing elegant about the phrasing. Some historian may eventually parse the cheers for the "We're Number One!" "USA-USA"-type lines in the speech as a sign of ... something .. in our national mentality of the era.
    [95] Another ovation here. See previous remarks.
    [96] Trying out this phrase as a new diplomatic / campaign meme. It's a reasonable contention.
    [97] As with the Burma line, this is in the speech mainly so no one can say, "But he didn't even mention..."
    [98] The longest standing ovation of all. The ease of getting cheers for the military, during an era when only a tiny percent of Americans are in the military, will also be fodder for historians and anthropologists.
    [99] This is another transition -- but in this case a wholly earned one. He is indeed circling back to the "military as model for a nation" motif with which he introduced the speech.
    [100] Not exactly a dog whistle, but a reminder that Don't Ask, Don't Tell went away on Obama's watch. The people who hold that against him are already aware of it. He's making sure the people who should be grateful, but might have forgotten, are attentive to this fact.
    [101] She gives a wan and tired-looking forced smile. Was it really necessary to introduce her in the context of a beaten contender? After all she has done?
    [102] I know that there are people who disagree with this on the merits. My view of America's history is closer to what Obama is arguing here; and in any case, tying it to the SEALS is rhetorically very nice.
    [103] A deliberate use of the vernacular; I think it works.
    [104] A very nice second use of "the State of the Union is..." theme, which effectively complements the previous "getting stronger." I won't belabor the useful way in which the two sentiments fit together. I will only say that the State of the Union will be stronger still when such a speech can end with such a well-wrought "real" ending, and not the boilerplate auto-text of the line that follows.


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