international analysis and commentary

State of the Union, State of Denial: an American reading

It was long (a Clintonian one hour nine minutes), genuinely funny in parts (I thought the line comparing the bank bailouts to a root canal worked), but not as eloquent as usual. After the shock of the Massachusetts special election (think of the counter-factual of Teddy Kennedy winning in Utah to get a sense of how big a deal this is), it was a speech designed to above all rally the troops—the very nervous Democratic Party.

As such, there was a whistle-past-the-graveyard quality to the whole effort. Scott Brown and Massachusetts were not mentioned by name. The President’s health care plan must be passed. But the punch line was missing, for he did not say how this could be done, given the current impasse. He also gracefully omitted mentioning that the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken the day of the speech showed 31% favoring his plan, with 46% opposing, a massive vote of no confidence in what has been the signature issue of his first year. No, much better to leave reality, as is so often the case, loitering outside the Capitol building.

But it was a third break with the real world that underpins something far more serious than just the political failure of the President’s first year. Aware that independents have decisively turned against Democrats largely over out-of-control spending, the President came armed with the preferred headline for his speech—he will urge a freeze on all government discretionary spending for three years excepting defense outlays.

As a good Jeffersonian, you’d think I’d join independents in shrieking, “At last!” But as with so much with this president, there is much less here than meets the eye. In essence, he’s shamelessly borrowed a ploy from the failed McCain campaign, who proposed just such a plan during the panicky days of fall 2008, when the world economy seemed about to go over the cliff; it was a gimmicky response to a real problem then, and remains so now.

If one excludes defense spending as well as the gargantuan federal entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) plus the interest that must be paid on our Mt. Everest of debt, there’s very little left to cut. At best, only one-sixth of the federal budget would be subject to this plan. As one analyst put it, it’s not taking a hatchet to government spending, but a Q-tip.

But a monster does lurk underneath theses waters. Almost unimaginable numbers make it clear that America is tapped out. The deficit for 2010, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), will be 1.35 trillion, just down from 2009’s postwar record of $1.4 trillion, or around 10% of the country’s GDP.

Even the sunny CBO numbers calculate an aggregate deficit of a further $6 trillion over the next decade, around an unsustainable 5.5% of GDP per year for 10 years, or more indebtedness than the American republic has run up in all the years since its founding until now put together. No amount of happy talk can remove this massive white elephant from the corner of the room.

With the retirement of the numerous and profligate baby boomers, entitlement reform will become absolutely necessary if America is to avoid terminal decline. Already the debt beast stirs beneath the waves, explaining independent and populist anger over out-of-control federal spending as well as President Obama’s huge difficulties in enacting a health care plan that does almost nothing to control the vital cost curve.
The state of the Union speech, and average Americans’ concerns, are always (barring a world war) primarily about the economy. This one was no different. But something is changing; there is a profound shift in emphasis occurring here, where this generally dominant domestic economic focus has become ever greater, and given the deficit numbers above, is likely to overwhelm all else for the foreseeable future. For without far more of a focus on domestic concerns, America’s time as the greatest power in the world will rather abruptly come to an end.

This has obvious and profound implications for America’s foreign policy; it will provide the unchanging, unchangeable context for everything else. Already, for example, gone is the talk of some in the heady days of the Obama campaign that humanitarian interventions in godforsaken places like Darfur should be a centerpiece of American foreign policy—an embarrassed silence from Wilsonians on the left has descended because there is simply no money for adventures abroad, even if they are in support of a “good cause”, if direct and profound American national interests are not involved. We are all realists now.

Wilsonians on the left and neoconservatives on the right will not lose the ideological battle to the likes of me because they have had Pauline-like conversions on the road to Damascus. I don’t expect Robert Kagan and Samantha Power to admit they have been wrong most of their adult lives; that’s not how human nature and certainly Washington (and Harvard) work. But Wilsonians and neoconservatives are being forced to acknowledge the fact that there is simply no longer the wherewithal for wars of choice, either in places like Iraq or in feel-good military American interventions in places like the Balkans. Rather the two schools of thought dominant in both major parties (with realists an honorable minority in the two) will continue to grudgingly acquiesce to realism (as the White House is sensibly doing over China and Russia) on a tactical and case-by-case basis.

As Wess Mitchell and I recently wrote in our book, The Godfather Doctrine, change, as is evidenced by America’s economic peril, will certainly come, the only and vital question is whether it will be shaped by American policymakers or merely happen to them.

Harry Truman was not half the speaker Barack Obama is. But he had a wonderful ability to connect the dots, to construct for the American people a narrative explaining where the country was, why the world still mattered to a nation that wanted to come home from World War II and simply go to the movies, and how he planned, in practical policy terms, to move forward in mastering such a new place. That is the task that awaits the President, to construct an internationalist, realist, foreign policy strategy that fits America’s circumstances to the paradoxical fact that, for all its troubles, America remains the most important country, even in a multipolar world. This will only happen if he finds the moral courage to look at the situation as it is, rather than as he would like it to be. That is the ethical imperative of realism, an idea whose time has come.

Further reading
State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama, January 27, 2010