The State of the Union: What Obama Doesn't Get About America

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Comparing the citizenry to a military unit, he says we need to cooperate better and trust more. But prospering as diverse individuals is our greatest strength   



The State of the Union Address began and ended with President Obama extolling the U.S. military. Invoking all those who served in Iraq, and especially the American men and women who died there, he said that they "made the United States safer and more respected around the world," a strange assertion coming from a man who himself insists fighting in Iraq made us less safe, campaigned on pulling out the troops, and knows the war made us less well respected. So he got off to a bad start, if we're to judge him on the truth of his words.

Thereafter it just got worse.

It ought to be self-evident that a free country neither can be run nor should be run like an army or a navy. America encompasses hundreds of millions of people with diverse values, priorities, and talents, each free to pursue happiness as he or she sees fit. The modern military is a hierarchical organization made up of self-selecting people compelled to take orders from their superiors. They're highly trained, expelled from the organization if they lack discipline, and expected to both risk their lives and kill other people to achieve the mission dictated to them.

Does Obama understand this about our warriors? "At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They're not consumed with personal ambition. They don't obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together," he says. "Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example. 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, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded."

Forget the fact that, along with all the tremendously brave and honorable veterans, our military has some bad apples; forget too that there are decent men and women who come home armless or uncharacteristically violent or suicidal; even accepting the rosy portrait Obama paints of the military, surely he must understand that it is in fact impossible for a free people to cooperate as efficiently as the armed forces; that there are deep disagreements among principled Americans about how best achieve the civilian goals Obama mentions; that it would be tyrannical for an authority to dictate a strategy; and that it would fail too, for at the height of America's relative power, when it attracted the highest paying jobs and led the world in educating its people, the folks making it all happen weren't cooperating like a military at all. They were marshaling the power of the market, running uncoordinated educational institutions (some private, some public), and taking orders from no one. In a free country, it is difficult to think of a less apt analogy than the one Obama offers.

Unlike some hardcore conservatives and libertarians, I don't have a principled aversion to a progressive income tax, nor do I mind redistributing wealth if the purpose is a legitimate one, like compelling taxpayers to fund a basic safety net for those unable to acquire food, shelter, or medical care. Infrastructure projects, public health agencies, certain kinds of scientific research -- these are among the several things I'd prefer that the federal government help fund, and I've never thought that Obama is a socialist or a radical departure from past presidents.

In this speech, however, the president suggested a course for America that is insufficiently solicitous of its diversity; misunderstands its strengths; and presumes that the federal government can be far more nimble, effective, and incorruptible than has ever been demonstrated. Judging from Twitter, some of you are already nodding along with this critique; others are perplexed by these objections. Perhaps folks in the latter group can better understand my concerns if we depart from abstractions and delve into more of the speech's particulars.

Three quick things as preface: (1) I don't blame Obama for the bad economy. (2) I have no opinion about whether the tax rate for folks making over $250,000 per year is too high, too low, or just right, and Obama's desire to raise rates on the highest earners isn't at all a part of what I objected to in his speech. He may be right. (3) I operate from this premise: when possible (alas, it isn't always), the government should avoid imposing majority values or priorities on individuals or minority groups who don't share them.

Okay, on to some excerpts.

Let's start here:

On the day I took office, our auto industry was on the verge of collapse. Some 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. 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.

If you favored the auto bailout, know this: even if it succeeded beyond anyone's imagination (a point on which I offer no judgment) it was political factors as much as sound economic analysis that caused its passage. Presume, for the sake of argument, that federal intervention worked this time: that bailing out a politically powerful industry was also the right thing to do economically. How frequently are the stars going to align so fortuitously? Especially after watching the Wall Street bankers get bailed out, does anyone really want to bet that federal attempts to bail out industries in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Raleigh would disinterestedly and reliably pick winners, as opposed to being captured by the most well-positioned special interests? Making a habit of industry bailouts makes it highly likely that government will be corrupted, that politicians will determine winners and losers as much as the market, and that long term growth will decline.

Then there is the energy sector.

Say that you're concerned, as I am, about climate change, and that you wish to hasten the speed at which alternatives to fossil fuels develop. You could argue that the costs that carbon actually imposes are currently underpriced, and address that market failure by instituting a carbon tax.

Or you could advance this agenda:

When Bryan Ritterby 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 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 on a clean energy industry that's never been more promising. Pass clean energy tax credits and 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. 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.

As Yuval Levin put it, "This speech offered a vision of a profoundly technocratic and activist government, with its hands in every nook and cranny of the nation's economic life -- a government guiding particular business decisions and nudging individual choices through just the right mix of incentives and rules to reach just the right balance between fairness and growth while designing the perfect website for job retraining programs and producing exactly the proper number of 'high-tech batteries.'" It isn't enough to achieve the ends of less carbon in the atmosphere and better alternative fuels. Obama wants to dictate the means too, and that is folly. The knowledge needed to make alternative fuels viable is distributed too widely for a top down approach to work.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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