A Deficit of Ideas

Today, the White House will announce plans to eliminate the color coding warning system created after 9/11 under the Bush administration. If there is a problem, the Obama administration says, they will tell us. Unlike the doom-and-gloom Republicans, Obama is once again trying to reduce fear and inspire “hope,” though he was careful not to use that specific campaign word during his State of the Union address.

But make no mistake about Obama’s speech — at the dawn of what promises to be two years of gridlock, Obama is settling back into where he is most comfortable — the campaign trail. It was no coincidence that the stories he featured throughout his address came from battleground states like Michigan, Colorado, and Oregon or that he visited Wisconsin the next day.

By portraying himself as a sensible centrist above the fray of bipartisan bickering, he futilely attempted to appease one side and then the other, often almost in the same breath. Allow gays in the military (to make Democrats happy) but also allow ROTC on college campuses (to make Republicans happy). Allow people not born in the United States to stay (Democrats) but secure the borders (Republicans).

Obama attempted to appeal to the center by pushing a pro-business agenda and emphasizing American exceptionalism. But pandering to business has a high price. The spending freeze on discretionary domestic programs would have a devastating effect on many American families. Obama emphasized job-creating exports but failed to mention that our trade policies have increased our imports even more. Our trade deals also push a deregulatory agenda that undermines workers and the environment everywhere. Instead of addressing climate change, Obama spoke of “clean energy,” code for the use of oxymoronic “clean coal” and nuclear power.

He missed out on the opportunity to advocate for a progressive vision of the United States and to take on a real leadership role. IPS scholars pointed out that he should have proposed gun control or criminal justice reform. In addressing the deficit, he gave only vague reference to cutting the military budget, a necessary action to take if we are serious about job creation and deficit reduction. Obama failed to propose new ways to generate revenue by clamping down on corporate tax dodgers. Read all of the great suggestions the IPS staff proposed for Obama on the IPS Blog.

Obama is right when he says we are living in a different time. The Republicans have the strength of the conservative movement on the outside pulling them and the nation further and further to the right. We, as progressives, need to apply that same pressure. Hope alone will not sustain us.