Standing up to the middle class

Yes, he gave a good speech. We knew he could do that. The question is whether he can deliver on one key passage.

Not the bit about "we are ready to lead once more." Among many nasty things you could say about George W. Bush, that he wasn't prepared to lead in foreign policy would be among the most fatuous.

The key passage was "Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age." As in, cut middle-class social programs.

One commentator managed to say this passage should have had the outgoing president "squirming like a schoolboy getting a licking" because "When he said collective failure, he surely meant the sorry stewardship of Mr. Bush."

But the technical term for one person is "individual," and Mr. Obama of all people is hardly so clumsy with language as to refer to his predecessor as a collectivity. Bush-hating will take you far in the commentariat. But Barack Obama is, I believe, trying to govern.

I say "I believe" because he may yet prove a little too fond of his popularity and too amorphously responsive to the public mood to be genuinely bold. Even Mr. Bush, often irritatingly self-assured, avoided measures that involved telling voters they were the source of a problem. But it's what I think Mr. Obama was trying to do.

If he leads in this direction, Congress may not follow. Alternatively, as with Bill Clinton on the relatively easy question of welfare reform, if he does not lead, Congress might.

But he must try.

Forget the conviction of liberal commentators that their infatuation with Mr. Obama is shared by the American people. And forget too their presumption that Mr. Obama necessarily shares the priorities of liberal commentators, and to succeed he must do what they want done, such as put the cultural wars behind us (as in, deliver painless victory for the liberal side), be post-political (as in, deliver painless victory for the liberal side) "re-invent a fossil fuel economy" (as in, deliver painless victory for the liberal side) and so forth.

Mr. Obama's real problem is quite different. He must somehow justify Middle America's faith in his ability to restore their economic fortunes, even though this will mean doing things that will not, in Richard Nixon's astute phrase, play well in Peoria, at least not initially.

To illustrate his problem, here's a story I think will amuse you. "California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said yesterday that the state faced 'insolvency within weeks' and that he would put new policies on hold until there was a deal with lawmakers to close the budget gap, which will top $40 billion U.S. over the current and next fiscal year. 'It doesn't make any sense to talk about education, infrastructure, water, health care reform and all these things when we have this huge budget deficit,' Mr. Schwarzenegger said in his annual state of the state speech."

That's the complete published text of a news story on page A7 of last Friday's Citizen. Maybe three column inches. Heck, "Poodle survives 19 days in locked van" got twice as much ink in the National Post that day, and on A2. (They didn't have the California story at all; nor did the Globe except in passing in a Jeffrey Simpson column.) But hang on a second.

California is busted. Ultra-rich, high-tech, dynamic, economy-to-die-for lavish excess Hollywood Silicon Valley California. Belly-up, broke, done. How can you fix it? By re-inventing a fossil fuel economy? (And why? Was it invented badly last time?) To answer that question you must ask how California went broke.

To fix America's fiscal problems you must rein in public spending and for that you must tell voters to stop emptying the treasury into their pockets. On Inauguration Day, Jeffrey Simpson alluded to underfunded social programs, but criticized Mr. Obama for promising "unwise tax cuts in his recovery package -- the country's problems are so deep that only by seriously contemplating tax increases of some kind can they be solved. A national sales tax, perhaps tied to future health-care payments, should be examined ..."

Yes, absolutely. Examined and then rejected. What is needed is dramatic cuts to middle-class programs like those made to programs for the poor in the 1990s. Now that would take genuine courage and vision. Can Mr. Obama do it?

Not alone, obviously, especially in the American system. But he can try. And I hope that's what he meant with his talk about "collective failure to make hard choices."

If not, well, it was still a pretty speech.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

UncategorizedJohn Robson