You got the same feeling watching President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night. A 7,000-word speech is bigger than a placard. But Obama's address shared the same virtues and shortfalls of the populist movement. Like OWS, the president offered a diagnosis of the middle class crisis that was informed,
passionate, and often insightful. Also like OWS, his solutions seemed
small, misguided, or confused when matched against the scale of the crisis.*
Americans are struggling, Obama said, not only because of the credit
crunch of the Great Recession, but also because of efficiency monster that
delivered a greater recession long before 2007. Manufacturing jobs were already disappearing, wages were already stagnating, technology was already eating our work, medical and education prices were already galloping while earnings were trotting.
How do you fix a problem like the greater recession and income inequality? The honest, realistic answer is that solving such a problem is likely beyond the reach of a president or Congress. But the purpose of the State of the Union is precisely to make oversized promises that Congress can underdeliver, so the president offered a laundry-list of measures guaranteed to please liberals and infuriate conservatives for basically the same reason: They cost money.
Oh, this speech doesn't lack for solutions. There's the tax solution (raise effective tax rates on all millionaires above 30%), the industrial solution (focus on manufacturing to drive economic growth), the education solution (pressure schools to lower tuition), the regulation solution (find regulations that are keeping entrepreneurs from starting companies), the deficit solution (exchange revenue increases with mild entitlement reform), the housing solution (a massive refinance plan to save homeowners money today), the energy solution (work with private sector to unlock the potential of natural gas), the infrastructure solution (build more road, bridges, and broadband), the quasi-mercantalist solution (take the trade fight to China and punish companies that outsource work), and the list goes on.
Most of these solutions cost money. Many of them are wise. Some might even have the potential
to be transformative. But taken together, they felt scattered, lacking organization or priority, like a sea of Occupy placards -- millions of little messages looking for a Message.
What Obama wants is ultimately what we all want: More good jobs. Manufacturing has hollowed out in the last 40 years, and we're all looking for something to replace it. The economy has reflexively replaced many of those decent-paying jobs for non-college graduates with worse-paying jobs in services, which has lacked manufacturing's efficiency gains. The president suggests a revitalization in manufacturing or energy to fill the hole.