What I’d Like to See in the 2011 State of the Union Address

In a few hours the White House website will post the upcoming 2011 State of the Union Address–scheduled for 9:00 pm this evening, Tuesday, January 25, 2011.  So, in good ironic fashion, with just hours left until the President Obama settles all such speculation, the Liberal Ironist would like to join the sundry lobbyists, pollsters, and political advisors left, right and center trying to advance ideas for the President to include in his speech tonight.  Note I only said I have a few ideas for what President Obama should want to talk about.  These suggestions are not necessarily mutually-regarding or prudent.  Alternately, they might not fit into the speech (or on the legislative docket).


A new financial commitment to highway and transit spending: As I wrote in a previous entry in late-December, our nation’s transportation infrastructure is a sorry state of repair.  The New York Times today also carries a good news analysis on the President’s political challenge in championing infrastructure spending.

Even if we all went in to the Matrix, we’d still need freight trains to bring raw materials in and haul waste materials out, so there’s no getting around the need to build, maintain and reconstruct transportation infrastructure.  More than just a momentary job-creator (and unemployment within the construction sector is twice the official national unemployment rate), highway and transit spending is an investment in cheaper goods and more-efficient on-site services, land values and planning flexibility (as it gives prospective workers and businesses more alternatives in where to locate within a metropolitan area).  We need to confront imprudent fiscal conservatism, the NIMBYs (“Not In My BackYard!”) in the civic organizations, and yes, some of the more-ideological environmental groups to rehabilitate and enhance our highway, railroad and transit network.  This commitment is visibly overdue; it’s time we had a new highway bill.


A new financial commitment to keep States’ psychiatric services open, possibly including a new Federal mandate: As the Liberal Ironist sees it, the real failure of our political system behind the massacre in Tucson had little to do with our hostile or even conspiratorial partisan rhetoric, nor did it have much to do with our very-minimal Federal gun laws and enforcement.  The fundamental problem is our failure to identify and address the needs of the mentally-ill.  Horrifyingly, as the New York Times reported last Friday, many of the States are now making cuts to already gap-ridden psychiatric services.  In Massachusetts, a person who shows up in an emergency room complaining of intense suicidal thoughts can wait 3 days before a psychiatrist is available to see him or her.

Far more of the mentally-ill pose a threat to themselves than to others; a larger share than that simply languishes in isolation.  A Conservative ethic of personal responsibility cannot plausibly apply to the mentally-ill, and budget cuts that leave unknown numbers of the insane to fend for themselves are not merely unjust but the prologue to the next (preventable) massacre.  The President could propose Federal subsidies for mental health services that the States are proposing to cut, or maybe even a fully-funded Federal mandate for the States to maintain a certain accessibility and quality of psychiatric care.  While that doesn’t jive with their limited-government political philosophy, Congressional Republicans might just allow such reforms to go forward as a way of mitigating the vague accusations in calls to “tone down the rhetoric” or the intermittent but surely-unwelcome calls to bring back the (previously-conceded) national gun control debate.


That said, let’s revisit the purpose of an assault weapons ban–the outlaw of the possession or sale of high-capacity ammunition clips: The Washington Post‘s recent Sunday edition had a front-page article reporting that Virginia police seizures of high-capacity bullet magazines used in crimes have reached an all-time high–in both absolute and relative terms.

The Second Amendment reads as follows:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The purpose of the Second Amendment was not for citizens to prepare to personally-wage a war, but to be at the ready to participate in one.  The Second Amendment isn’t “going” anywhere; nor are the lobbies, gun manufacturers and sellers, or the millions of impassioned citizens whom associate in its name going to change their convictions.  (For that matter, the criminals and the bears that provide part of the justification for private gun ownership won’t be going anywhere, either.)  What the President could propose in the State of the Union is a new Federal ban of the 11+ capacity bullet clips that have been repeatedly used in the killing sprees that clog our airwaves.  Republican Congressmen who were happy to embrace the President’s “return to civility” just as solemnly insisted that gun regulations had no bearing on the Tucson massacre.  They insisted on this as the story broke that the clearly-insane perpetrator of this massacre bought his hand-held arsenal legally.  It’s time the President invited the Republicans to get on board with a new Federal high-capacity magazine ban or explain their position on this at length–on his terms.

The remorseless madman behind the Tucson massacre was able to fire 31 times before he had to reload.  The purpose of high-capacity magazines is to be able to shoot a lot of people quickly.  The President should take the initiative and then leave it to the Republicans to make the case that the rapidly-rising number of high-capacity magazines being used in crimes is making people safer.  Incidentally, he has public opinion on his side on this one already.


A stern reminder that global warming is very real, and a call for climate legislation–without the cap-and-trade protocols so-vilified by the Republicans: Any climate bill may have to be light on subsidies to have any chances, either.  The general Republican sentiment towards corn-based ethanol is skeptical, to put it mildly.  That’s understandable; corn-based ethanol is much less-clean and less-efficient than sugar-based ethanol.  In 2008, Brazil got a majority of its gasoline from sugarcane-based ethanol produced domestically!  I first read about that in The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future, a very cool book by UCLA professor of geography Laurence C. Smith.  What I also read in that book was a suggestion that we import sugarcane ethanol from the sometimes-struggling nations of the Caribbean.

Try to imagine it: President Obama works together with House Republicans to find a cleaner, renewable fuel alternative to Middle Eastern-produced gasoline just hundreds of miles away, that troubled countries like Honduras, El Salvador, and Haiti could produce for us.  Can it be done?  Yes, it can.  Only billions of dollars in farm subsidies and hefty tariffs on foreign agricultural imports stand in the way.


A call to the United States to aid the democratic transition unfolding in Tunisia–on the opposition leaders’ terms–and a warning to other Middle Eastern dictators that political and economic reforms are absolutely necessary: The Washington Post‘s recent Sunday edition offered several calls to the President to become more-engaged in current Middle East developments.  Suggestions included offering both assistance to Tunisians and sterner warnings to the remaining Arab dictators that they must create more-vibrant economies and civil societies and mechanisms for the redress of grievances if they want to keep their heads.  Recovering Neoconservative and monthly Post contributor Robert Kagan offered a somewhat-alarmist but substantive criticism of the President’s strangely-explicit reticence to raise the obvious questions about political repression in Egypt when speaking with its despotic ruler, Hosni Mubarak; the Post‘s lead editorial from the same day pragmatically called for the President to offer technical assistance, foreign aid to sponsor political reforms, and trade negotiations to Tunisia’s interim government to help consolidate the recent revolution.  The Liberal Ironist thinks President Obama could do far more to achieve his predecessor’s political reform dream in the Middle East through calm but clear enunciation of a carrot-and-stick approach to building a civil society than George W. Bush did with violent rhetoric and tactics; the advent of a Republican House majority without a clear foreign policy perspective seems like a good time to lay out a positive Middle East agenda.


A warm greeting to Speaker Boehner, on the order of George W. Bush’s 2007 State of the Union welcome to “Madame Speaker”–no, I’m not kidding–and an acknowledgment that a little partisanship is good for us: The Democratic Party is fundamentally-concerned with using the power of government to promote and secure the conditions for a higher individual standard of living, and to institutionalize a regard for civil rights and social justice.  The Republican Party–in the wake of the Tea Party insurgency, at least–is fundamentally-concerned with reducing taxation and the scope of government, particularly the Federal Government, and perhaps with fostering the kind of civil society that protests technocratic initiatives to mobilize government to solve social problems.  Why is the existence of the disagreement itself so horrifying?  Sure, the Liberal in me misses the Democratic majority already.  (Actually, I’ve really missed the Democratic majority since the House Republicans went ahead with their silly stunt of passing the Health Care Reform repeal even though it self-evidently doesn’t even have majority support in the Senate or even enough votes in the House to override a Presidential veto.)  Still, the ironist in me acknowledges that the Republicans ran a clear campaign on a platform of reducing the scope of the Federal Government, and they were rewarded with the biggest Republican wave of most of our lifetimes.  I’ve previously argued that the extent of the Democrats’ loss this year has far more to do with their failure to address high unemployment and a lethargic economy than a popular rejection of their ideology, but it is completely unreasonable not to expect the Republicans to propose $100 billion in cuts to the Federal budget, the “already accomplished” dead-end of passing a repeal of Health Care Reform in the House, and a push to at least extend the budget-busting Bush tax cuts yet-again in late-2012.  As imprudent, absurd or offensive as these initiatives may strike us Democrats, the fact remains that these were the core of “the Pledge” the Republicans made to their base.  They will fight for those goals, and the Democrats will fight against them.

That’s the narrative.  So, to get out ahead of the Republicans on the cause of government-cutting, President Obama will have to acknowledge that “the people have spoken” in electing a large Republican House majority as well as a total of 29 Republican governors and a majority of state legislatures.  But then in order to maintain his authority and to rally his base, he’ll have to confront the Republican House majority and say he will brook no effort to undo his legacy of Health Care Reform, new financial regulations and “neat stuff” like high-speed rail pilot projects.  Sending both messages won’t be easy to do.

Nor will it be an easy thing for the President to defend his vision while acknowledging that popular opinion has rejected his overall economic philosophy.  But at nearly every step of his Presidency (excepting disastrous unemployment and a catastrophic oil spill), Barack Obama has exceeded expectations and left the cynics by the roadside.

And as far as I know, the President is still the lead writer for most of his own speeches.  When the Liberal Ironist tunes in for the State of the Union Address tonight, he expects to hear President Obama not just talking, but really speaking.


One thought on “What I’d Like to See in the 2011 State of the Union Address

  1. Kukri

    They should strengthen background checks for gun buyers, and make sure relevant information (like psychological issues) are properly and fully reported. Too many people were aware of Loughner’s illness and did absolutely nothing. This culture must change as well.
    Sounds like a good list of proposals, though I’m a little wary of a blanket 11 standard on magazine bans, because all firearms are different. I wouldn’t limit it to 11 , and have it depend more on what type of firearm (make and model) is being bought.


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