28 January 2010

Breaking Down the State of the Union 2010

As my loyal readers all know, I'm a pretty loyal Republican. I believe in common-sense Conservative ideals; I think smaller government governs better; I'm not keen on someone else thinking they can spend my hard-earned money (especially these last two years) better than I can. With that being said, the Republican Party has been ticking me off pretty good over the last six to eight months. Don't worry, this post IS about the State of the Union, not a rant of the GOP-Dem turf war in Congress.... I'm leading up to it.

I am a conservative Republican because I believe that the ideas and morals upheld by the conservative ideology are a better way to govern a 300 million-person country than the liberal ideology. Lately in Congress, the White House, State Legislatures, and indeed in the fabric of society itself, I have seen Democrats become the party of "shove-it-down-their-throats-because-it's-good-for-them" and Republicans become the party of "No. No no no. Nonononononononononono." The Democrats don't give the public a good idea of why they're trying to shove through game-changing legislation, and the Republicans want to block all legislation, yet they don't offer any better alternatives.

That's why last night's State of the Union Address was important for me to watch. I wanted to see the President of the United States come out from behind his desk and do his job. It says in Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution: "He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." The political state of this union right now is not strong. He needed to say so, and he needed to "recommend" to both his own party and the GOP that they start governing again.

I also wanted the President to discuss jobs. Not just describing that the job market is bad and we need to do something to fix it. I wanted a plan, and a promise to pursue it. Now, I know what you're thinking: politicians' promises hold no water. True, but then if he doesn't deliever after making a promise, I can hold him to it.

As for the speech itself, it was, of course, well-delievered. President Obama is a good speaker, and although I have to admit a part of me wanted him to fall flat on his face once or twice, I also must give due credit to him for giving a really big, really tough address to a nation that is pretty pissed off at government right now and doing it well. By my count, the President was interrupted for applause 92 times in his 70-minute address, or once every 46 seconds on average. He spent the first 31 minutes of the address discussing primarily the economy and jobs, and the last 39 minutes touching on a wide variety of topics.

On the economy: "If we had allowed the meltdown of the financial system...."
President Obama's first topic was on the economy. He reiterated what his administration had done over the last year to stave off financial meltdown, specifically, the bank bailouts - which he called "about as popular as a root canal" - and cutting taxes on working families, small businesses, first-time homebuyers, parents, and college graduates. Now, I don't really follow tax policy, so I don't know to what extent Congress cut taxes during the past year, but I can certainly see it happening. The problem is, though, that this Congress spent gazillions of dollars "shoring up" the banks to promote lending, and isn't really firm on how to get that money back through repayment over time. For that, the President proposed a fee on the biggest banks who, "if these firms can afford to hand out big bonuses again, they can afford a modest fee to pay back the taxpayers who rescued them...."

On jobs: "That is why jobs must be our number one focus in 2010...."
Whereas the economy was the prelude, the President promised to make creating jobs for the 10% of people unemployed (like yours truly) his biggest priority in 2010. And, surprisingly to me, he actually laid a decent foundation for doing so:
1. Using $30 billion of the bank bailout repayment money to lend to community and local banks to allow them, in turn, to lend to more small businesses. He also called for eliminating all capital gains taxes on small-business investment and providing a tax incentive for all businesses to invest in new equipment. In my mind, that's a very good way to encourage small businesses to grow. I would assume that many Republicans right now would say that this idea is socialist; lending money to community banks only serves to give government tighter control over local economies, and more government = bad. I don't know if I can agree. Giving the money back to local communities, even if it then had to be repaid to the feds in the future over time accomplishes the goal of kick-starting lending, and is an acceptable way of having the federal government help small businesses specifically in a way that no state or local government could possibly do.

2. Jobs should stay in America. For that, the President proposed stopping tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas, and giving them instead to companies who keep jobs here in the country. I don't know about that one... I am still a laissez-faire sort of conservative, and I think messing with the free flow of trade probably helps cause all the economic problems we're having now. But on the other hand, I can see a direct corrolation between companies continuing to ship jobs overseas and the decline of American innovation, and more specifically, the decline of me finding a decent job. I don't know... I'll reserve final judgment until I can see more info on this.

3. Innovation should start in America. It has for the last hundred years or so, and there's no reason that China, India, or Europe should have an edge on us - we developed all the technology that future technology is based on! Specifically, the next wave of innovation the President sees is in energy - moving the country away from oil and gas, and toward cleaner, more renewable energies: safe and clean nuclear power plants, offshore oil drilling, biofuels, and clean coal. And I agree with him both that the way to accomplish this goal is to pass "a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America," and that even if you find global warming to be a crock (and I certainly do), moving our country away from dependance on Arabian and South American oil and toward our own sustainable energy sources is absolutely the right thing to do. Hell, if we could get everyone out there to drive cars that use cheap renewable energy and live in houses powered by the sun from panels on our roofs, that basically eliminates a huge chunk of American expenditures on gas and electricity. What's bad about that?

4. Investing in the skills and education of our people. Rightly so, America is lagging behind other countries consistently in subjects like writing, math, spelling, and science. No longer is a high school diploma - or even a college Bachelor's degree - useful in procuring a decent job. I absolutely agree with President Obama's rhetoric about forgiving student loan debt after 20 years (10 years if they work in public service), increasing Pell grants, getting rid of the taxpayer subsidies to banks for student loans, and giving families a $10,000 tax credit for college. I also recognize that it's a bit too late for me to take advantage of any of these things, but it's definitely a step in the right direction.

On healthcare: "I want everyone to take another look at the plan we've proposed."
We all know all about this one. The President called for a renewed effort to pass healthcare reforms. And let's be honest, the ideas we're discussing when it comes to healthcare are not wrong. We need reforms to extend coverage to more people, and Congress should certainly try to help bring down the cost of ensuring that no one who is sick is turned away from getting care. We disagree on the method to get us there. I don't like a "public option" where the government is in control of healthcare. I think it leads to monopolization down the road, decreased service quality, and rationing of services. What happens the next time we hit a recession/depression, and the requirement of the federal government to provide healthcare services at taxpayer expense is what tips us over the edge to financial meltdown and depression? Problem is, the Republicans have no better plan. My take: let's institute reforms slowly over time, allowing the best ideas to pass Congress first, and then building on them as we see what works and what doesn't. Doing a total overhaul of the healthcare system has the advantage of looking politically charging during an election, but has the twin downfalls of potentially being disastrous, and being ideologically unsound for half the country.

On spending and transparency: "We are prepared to freeze spending for three years."
Now this is an interesting one. To reduce the deficit, the President is proposing a three year moratorium on all non-essential spending projects starting in 2011. This excludes national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security spending, but includes "all other discretionary government programs." All I have to say on this one is that if he is serious, and can somehow pull it off in the next year to reduce the deficit, I'll vote for him in 2012. But he's not serious. That idea was simply to placate the Republicans and fiscally-conservative Democrats into thinking that he's considering proposals for reducing excessive spending.

I still believe that one of the better ways to stop bad spending is not to propose it in the beginning. That's why I liked the President's call to Congress for more transparency. Specifically, to "publish all earmark requests on a single Web site before there's a vote so the American people can see how their money is being spent." Will Congress do this? No. Would it help bad spending even if they did? Probably not. Would it save any significant amount of money? Not really. But it's a nice idea and a start.

On party division: "...What frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is Election Day."
This time, I'm simply going to quote the President directly, because I absolutely believe this:
This post is now quite long enough, and I've hit all the major points I wanted to hit. The remaining twelve or so minutes of the address was spent talking about the other regular reforms that are always part of the President's agenda: national security, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, increasing veterans' services, reducing nuclear arms with Russia, human rights, civil rights, gay rights and hate crimes, and reiterating the strength of spirit of the American people.
"Of course, none of these reforms will even happen if we don't also reform how we work with one another. Now, I'm not naive. I never thought that the mere fact of my election would usher in peace and harmony and some post-partisan era.

"I knew that both parties have fed divisions that are deeply entrenched. And on some issues, there are simply philosophical differences that will always cause us to part ways. These disagreements, about the role of government in our lives, about our national priorities and our national security, they've been taking place for over 200 years. They're the very essence of our democracy.

"But what frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is Election Day. We can't wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about the other side, a belief that if you lose, I win. Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can.

"The confirmation of... I'm speaking of both parties now. The confirmation of well-qualified public servants shouldn't be held hostage to the pet projects or grudges of a few individual senators.

"Washington may think that saying anything about the other side, no matter how false, no matter how malicious, is just part of the game. But it's precisely such politics that has stopped either party from helping the American people. Worse yet -- worse yet, it's sowing further division among our citizens, further distrust in our government.

"So, no, I will not give up on trying to change the tone of our politics. I know it's an election year. And after last week, it's clear that campaign fever has come even earlier than usual. But we still need to govern.

"To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills.

"And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, a supermajority, then the responsibility to govern is now yours, as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions."

On a final note, it was definitely interesting that President Obama harangued the Supreme Court as a part of his speech for striking down certain campaign finance laws that put limits on campaign donations for larger entities like corporations and lobbyists. This one deserves its own blog post, so I'll be working on that for my next post.

Thanks for sticking with me for this understandably long post. I hope my readers will post their thoughts in the "comments" section below!

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