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Friday, January 26, 2007
The State of the Union, Part I: General Notes and Domestic Issues

The economy, health care, immigration, federal judges, energy independence, and more.

My Introductory Chatter

President Bush delivered his 2007 State of the Union speech Tuesday evening; I read it three days later. I don't usually watch or listen to this annual address; it's not an efficient use of time. Reading is inherently faster than listening, and in this case the inevitable several dozen interruptions for applause get quite tedious.

I like to experience a thing before everyone tells me what it means and what to think, so I didn't listen to or read much of the post-speech commentary before reading the speech. I did happen to hear a brief report on KSL on Wednesday morning, while driving. It consisted of a couple of short, predictable sound bites from prominent Utah Republicans, followed by a newscaster's observation that ordinary folks didn't like the speech as Republican officials did. This set up a much longer segment from "the man on the street," who was articulate, methodical, and showed a thorough mastery of the standard Democrat talking points -- meaning he was quite critical of the President and the speech. The typical man on the street isn't that well informed, that articulate, or that partisan. Not that major media spinning things to the left is news . . .

For the readers who just want a summary of the speech, without too much of my cynical input, I am hereinafter putting my personal opinions in blue, for the most part. That way, you can skip them easily, if you want.

The Speech: General Impressions

According to the transcript I read, the speech was interrupted more than 60 times by applause -- which is a good reason to read instead of watch, as I suggested. What the transcript doesn't say, and what the network pundits don't typically mention when they deliver this favorite statistic, is whether both sides of the aisle applauded at a given point, or just one.

I can't comment on the delivery, of course, having only read the speech. For example, I can only imagine how the President pronounced nuclear. As to content, however, I thought it was a solid speech. If I thought the speech would have much impact on his official audience, the Senate and the House of Representatives, I'd be very pleased. But the Democrats, at least most of them, don't share the simplistic, common view of bipartisanship, which involves meeting someone halfway in order to accomplish what needs to be done. Bipartisanship for them means getting their way. And the Republicans on Capitol Hill have yet to demonstrate that they have what it takes to move the majority in the President's direction.

In most ways, I think the direction this State of the Union speech indicates is wise and sensible. I differ on a few basic points, as I will note. But I don't expect the wisdom of this speech's vision to matter much on most issues.

In general, the President sounded the theme of responsibility: to solve problems, not leave them to future generations; to guard America against evil (which some in the chamber don't even believe exists, as a moral category); and to keep faith with our people, our soldiers, and our allies.

The Economy

I can just hear the Democrats' rebutting the President's report that the economy is strong. True, as he said, we're in the 41st month of uninterrupted job grown. True, unemployment and inflation are low. True, wages are rising. But, despite hard data saying they're wrong, the Democrats insist that all of this growth is disproportionately favoring the rich at the expense of the poor and the middle class. Data don't matter; the slogan is all. If they repeat it often enough, maybe 50.1 percent of the voters will believe it in 2008 . . . Uh, sorry. I let my cynicism run wild there. Back to the speech.

President Bush's major points related to the economy were:

  • Continuing to balance the budget without raising taxes, by imposing spending discipline.
  • Severely reducing earmarks -- specifically, cutting them in half by the end of the session.

"Over 90 percent of earmarks never make it to the floor of the House and Senate -- they are dropped into committee reports that are not even part of the bill that arrives on my desk. You didn't vote them into law. I didn't sign them into law. Yet, they're treated as if they have the force of law. The time has come to end this practice."

  • Fixing Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid -- but he offered no specifics here. (Perhaps he has learned not to from past experience. This way, the Democrats might be confused as to what to oppose.)

"Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid are commitments of conscience, and so it is our duty to keep them permanently sound. Yet, we're failing in that duty. And this failure will one day leave our children with three bad options: huge tax increases, huge deficits, or huge and immediate cuts in benefits. Everyone in this chamber knows this to be true -- yet somehow we have not found it in ourselves to act. So let us work together and do it now."

My take: He's right about the budget and taxes and discipline, but that's not how most Democrats and quite a few Republicans see it. I hope these things happen, but I don't expect them to. As to earmarks, half might happen, if the issue keeps a high profile. It would look good. (Too bad all earmarks cannot be eliminated.)

As to the last point, I'm not convinced that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are "commitments of conscience"; it is not self-evident to me that the federal government (meaning a nation of taxpayers) must be the ones to provide for citizens' retirement or medical care. But I accept all three programs for the present as a political inevitability, so, yes, they definitely need to be fixed. Unfortunately, the majority party in both houses sees it as advantageous to their 2008 prospects if these problems continue to exist. The minority power doesn't have the collective will to alter that.


President Bush emphasized reauthorizing No Child Left Behind, with the aims, among others, of "giving local leaders flexibility to turn around failing schools," "giving families with children stuck in failing schools the right to choose someplace better," and "strengthening math and science skills." 

My take: I'm no big fan of No Child Left Behind, but the purposes listed are certainly worthy. I don't know how the reauthorization will fare; there will be strong pressures on both sides. Neither success nor failure in reauthorization will be a disaster or a complete solution to major educational challenges.

Health Care

The President laid out a basic plan to insure that "all our citizens have affordable and available health care." He said that "government has an obligation to care for the elderly, the disabled, and poor children. . . . For all other Americans, private health insurance is the best way to meet their needs."

He proposed these measures:

  • A substantial standard tax deduction for health insurance, which will those who already have it a break, and those who don't a chance to afford it, not to mention a small fiscal incentive to acquire it. He specified a $15,000 deduction (applied to income and payroll taxes, presumably including FICA) for couples filing jointly, or $7500 for adults filing individually.
  • Federal assistance (as in dollars) for "states that are coming up with innovative ways to cover the uninsured."
  • Expansion of Health Savings Accounts.
  • Help for small businesses through Association Health Plans.
  • Medical liability reform "to protect good doctors from junk lawsuits."

Again, it is not self-evident to me that it is the federal government's responsibility to provide for anyone's health care, except for veterans' and perhaps its own employees'. The fact that many need medical care may suggest that it is someone's duty to provide it, but there are ways to achieve that more efficiently without government funding it directly. (Tax incentives help.) That said, I think all of the specific measures he listed are good. If enough Democrats and Republicans decide to solve the problem, most or all of these could happen. But bear in mind that solving it this way will seriously undermine the case for government-funded health care for all Americans, to which many Democrats are quite committed -- even if, in practice, such systems rarely make health care more affordable and more available. They may not be willing to solve the problem in any other way.


President Bush emphasized the need for "serious, civil, and conclusive debate" on immigration reform. Notably, the last year or so has seen very little debate on the subject that was any of those three good things, let alone all. Specifically, he says we should:

  • "Establish a legal and orderly path for foreign workers to enter our country to work on a temporary basis."
  • "Enforce our immigration laws at the work site."
  • "Give employers tools to verify the legal status of their workers, so there's no excuse left for violating the law."
  • "Resolve the status of the illegal immigrants who are already in our country without animosity and without amnesty."

My take: As far as this goes, it's excellent and reasonable. Put it to a popular vote tomorrow, and a large majority of Americans would go for it. If these things are all implemented, it will be a major bipartisan triumph. And wouldn't now be an opportune time for the Democrats to go along, when no 2008 presidential candidate could reasonably claim much credit for the triumph? I really don't expect to see it in this Congress. I think it's in the realm of possibility, but it sounds like a massive undertaking, and is actually bigger than that.

Energy Independence

President Bush noted that energy independence has national security implications; it's not just a domestic issue. Excessive dependence on foreign oil places our economy at great risks.

He said:

It's in our vital interest to diversify America's energy supply -- the way forward is through technology. We must continue changing the way America generates electric power, by even greater use of clean coal technology, solar and wind energy, and clean, safe nuclear power. We need to press on with battery research for plug-in and hybrid vehicles, and expand the use of clean diesel vehicles and biodiesel fuel. We must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol -- using everything from wood chips to grasses, to agricultural wastes.

His specific proposals are these:

  • "Reduce gasoline usage in the United States by 20 percent in the next 10 years. When we do that we will have cut our total imports by the equivalent of three-quarters of all the oil we now import from the Middle East."
  • "Increase the supply of alternative fuels, by setting a mandatory fuels standard to require 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017 -- and that is nearly five times the current target."
  • "Reform and modernize fuel economy standards for cars the way we did for light trucks -- and conserve up to 8.5 billion more gallons of gasoline by 2017."
  • "Step up domestic oil production in environmentally sensitive ways."
  • "Double the current capacity of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve."

My take: All of this is probably good. Even the new fuel economy standards for cars could probably be imposed sensibly, without serious economic damage. But may God have mercy on this to-do list, because the environmental lobby won't. They have long blocked clean coal technology. They don't believe nuclear power can be clean and safe. And everything on this list they like, they will labor mightily to push too far. That doesn't mean the President shouldn't try, though.

I'm okay with this section of the speech until this paragraph:

America is on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will enable us to live our lives less dependent on oil. [I'm willing to believe this, within reason.] And these technologies will help us be better stewards of the environment, [Fine. I'm for that.] and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change. [No, Mr. President! Don't drink the Kool-Aid! It's a bad hybrid of bad science, bad religion, bad economics, and bad politics.]

At least he didn't endorse the Kyoto Economic Suicide Pact, but he'll have one more change in next year's State of the Union speech, if he wants it.

Federal Judges

Of federal judges, President Bush said:

We have a shared obligation to ensure that the federal courts have enough judges to hear those cases and deliver timely rulings. As President, I have a duty to nominate qualified men and women to vacancies on the federal bench. And the United States Senate has a duty, as well, to give those nominees a fair hearing, and a prompt up-or-down vote on the Senate floor.

My take: If there were honor among politicians in Washington these days, this is how things would go. Don't hold your breath. I think the Republicans should have pushed a lot harder for this when they had the majority in Congress; I doubt they succeed now.

I'll leave the war in Iraq and elsewhere for the next post, and I'll take a different approach.

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