Thursday, January 27, 2011

The President's Speech Will Leave You...Sputnik?

On Tuesday evening, President Obama carried out his annual responsibility as spelled out in the U.S. Constitution: addressing both bodies of Congress on the State of the Union. Its a tradition that I have come to cherish, since the George Herbert Walker Bush presidency. And yes, I endured each one of George Walker Bush's infuriating State of the Union Addresses, with all his squinting and smirks to convey a sincerity behind his cynical words. Progressive websites offered drinking games or bingo cards to play along, which made Bush's annual lies to the American public "endurable."

I don't have a transcript of Obama's 2011 Address to Congress, so I can't pick out specific things that he said for commentary. I'm going purely by memory and what stands out the most was his mention that we are now in our "Sputnik moment." What does that mean exactly? Obviously, the Soviet Union's launch of the first satellite in October 1957 had spooked the American psyche to prompt President Eisenhower to emphasize math and science education in schools and for President Kennedy to dare the country to put men on the moon by the end of the 1960s.

With the 50th anniversary of Sputnik come and gone, why are we still spooked by it? It seems like every president since Eisenhower has emphasized science and math in our education system, but let's get real, here. In American schools, the social scene holds a huge sway on the students. Our corporate-controlled media encourages and supports shallow thinking in our citizenry, with an emphasis on pop culture stuff (a shallow person like Sarah Palin would not be famous in a country that valued intelligence and competence, where celebrity is not worshipped by the masses). Math and science carries the taint of "nerd-dom." When I was in high school in the 1980s, the math and science wizards were generally foreigners, particularly from Asian countries (a cliche that is actually true). The American students often cruelly made fun of the Vietnamese student with a calculator and a genius for solving complex equations. It should not surprise anyone that India and China does not seem to have a problem inspiring students there to pursue math and science knowledge. We are on the losing end of the curve. Is there a way for President Obama to make math and science cool and popular with our students? I doubt that. Its simply another president stating the obvious, but nothing will change.

Overall, though, I thought President Obama's address was really good. He certainly sets the table for the upcoming reelection campaign. There are many things he said which he can use on the campaign trail against Republicans if they try to repeat the mistakes of the Gingrich era of Republican malfeasance. I especially loved it when Obama said that he was willing to improve his Health Care Reform Act, but not see it repealed. It definitely needs to be improved upon.

I also liked that Obama wants to streamline government agencies and eliminate redundancies, which he illustrated by mentioning the strange absurdities regarding my favourite food item: Salmon! One department regulates salmon in freshwater while another regulates the fish in salt water. Then he cracked a joke: "I heard it gets more complicated when its smoked." Ah, smoked salmon! Is there anything more delicious than that?

The best moment of all was when Obama laid down the challenge: improving America's standing in the world of global economics and creating more jobs to employ the unemployed is more important than next year's election. American voters were not smart when they returned the Republicans to power in the House of Representatives, because by doing that, they guaranteed that partisan bickering and dithering would continue through the 2012 elections. Electing the opposition party that has a not-so-secret agenda of making Obama's presidency a failure was just stupid for anyone who cares about an economic turn-around and job growth. The smartest option was to give the Democrats two more years to make changes to improve our country. The Democratic Party has a vested interest in seeing President Obama succeed and when Obama's presidency succeeds, that means America is succeeding. Its simple logic. Never underestimate America's willingness to screw themselves over to benefit the wealthy, though! (Yes, I am an American citizen, but I am often confounded by my fellow citizens' preference for shallow thinking and celebration of ignorance while voting against their own economic self interest).

President Obama gave a laundry list of what he hopes to achieve in the next couple years, and some of it might've been too ambitious. His main focus for the next two years can be boiled down to three items: Jobs, jobs, JOBS!!! President Clinton loves to brag that his administration saw the creation of 22 million new jobs (though I wonder how many of those were "service industry / retail" jobs that paid minimum wage and no benefits). Hopefully, though, Obama means what he says when he wants to close all the tax loopholes and government subsidies of the oil industry. If a corporation is earning profits, then it should not be subsidized at all. I understand subsidizing the airline and rail industries, because they keep travel affordable for Americans, but when oil companies are posting record profits and paying CEOs millions in bonuses, its time to crack down.

The State of the Union is often seen as the President's wishlist to Congress playing Santa Claus. However, now that we have the Grinches back in control of the gavel, I doubt we are going to get much out of this Congress. I'm expecting a repeat of the Clinton / Gingrich battles of 1995-1996. We've seen hints of it already: Boehner and his cronies want to cut funding for NPR, PBS, and if these public goods were really as big a drain on our budget as our overbloated defense spending. That's where the biggest cuts need to come from first, which means a withdrawal of forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm finally at the point where I am ready to see troops out of Afghanistan (officially our longest war now). It was an expensive endeavour that contributed to our financial crisis.

All in all, a good State of the Union Address. I missed seeing Speaker Nancy Pelosi sitting behind the president. However, seeing if Boehner is going to cry or adjusting my TV's colour setting so that his "tan" can actually look natural makes for a fun viewing. I also liked seeing that members of Congress had a bi-partisan date, and wearing a black and white ribbon in honour of their colleague, Congresswoman Giffords, who is still recovering in an Arizona hospital. It was funny to see a dour-looking Senator John Kerry, who sat with his good buddy Senator John McCain (who actually gave Obama a standing ovation when the president promised to veto any bill that had earmarks attached). This bi-partisan seating arrangement is a great idea and goes a long way in lessening the partisanship that has run amuck in the past couple decades. Though it made for a subdued general vibe, I think this should also become tradition instead of having the parties seated on separated sides.

Another tradition I love is the opposition party's response to the president's address. This has become a way for the party out of the White House to showcase an up-and-coming politician. A couple years ago, the much hyped Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana gave the response, which was widely panned and likely hurt his chances for the president (I haven't heard his named talked about as much since the response he gave in 2009). Last year, I think the governor of Virginia gave the response, but I don't remember much about it other than he spoke from the Virginia legislature. This year, Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has been given the honours. He is talked about as a future presidential candidate and I was impressed by his interview on The Charlie Rose Show last year. He is definitely one to watch, though his response was disappointing and based on some editorials I've read, it looks like it is also widely panned as pessimistic and dour, while repeating the old Republican standby: only tax cuts to the wealthy will save our country! Um, we actually tried that numerous times since Reagan and how many times do we have to injure ourselves economically before we learn the truth: trickle down economics DOES NOT WORK!!! There's a reason why George Herbert Walker Bush had called it "voodoo economics" when he was running for the GOP nomination for president in 1980.

Congressman Paul Ryan might be a nice guy and pretty wonky for a Republican, but he has a difficult road to the White House if he continues in Congress. It is virtually impossible for a member of the House of Representatives to become president. One of the factors against them is that they run for reelection every election cycle, so they would have to risk their future by making a presidential run (meaning that they can't run for both President and Congress at the same time). Since FDR, our presidents have either been Governors, Senators, Vice Presidents, or Generals. Too many politicians who make a career out of Congress have stuck with the safe reelection rather than risk unemployment for the hard to get "brass ring" of the presidency. Perhaps next year, Senator Scott Brown will be given his chance to offer the Republican response. He is the one I believe is being groomed to be our next Republican president (in 2016). Perhaps he will select Paul Ryan as a running mate when that chance comes.

Until then, my advice to Congressman Ryan: don't quit your day job! As I watched his response, I kept thinking two things: I would not buy a used car from this guy; and "Where were you in 2001 through 2003 when YOUR President Bush ran up our deficits and squandered the surplus he inherited?!?" Republicans have no credibility lecturing our country on the dangers of our national debt. I heard no such Republican opposition when Vice President Cheney said a decade ago, "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter." I guess deficits DO matter when there's a black Democrat in the WHITE House!

To add to the hilarity that is the Republican Party these days, Teabagger Republican Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota offered her own response to the President's Address. This apparently has made some GOP officials livid, but good for her. I'm totally into the Civil War within the Republican Party and the embarrassment that is the Teabagger movement, which prides itself on ignorance, fundamentalist Christianity, and historical revisionism. Its a reactionary movement against our country's evolution towards multiculturalism.

There's talk that Bachmann is interested in running for president in 2012. God, I hope so! Her typically asinine comments are hilarious, even though I find her to be more dangerous than Sarah Palin. While Palin's dysfunction and petty, high school "mean girl" mindset ultimately hurts her public image with most Americans, Bachmann seems to be far more competent and less prone to personal drama. She's a hard core fundamentalist who would love to see America become a theocracy. Her latest display of ignorance was a speech she had made where she claimed that our Founding Fathers fought hard to end slavery!!! Really? That's news to me, as well as historians. Thomas Jefferson actually did write a condemnation of slavery into the Declaration of Independence, but it was taken out by the Continental Congress because the Southern Colonies would not sign it and they wanted all 13 colonies on board for this act of treason against King George III. The slavery issue kept getting passed from president to president until Lincoln was forced to deal with it once and for all. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as EVERYONE KNOWS, owned slaves. They didn't free some of their slaves until they died. How could a member of Congress get history wrong?

I don't believe it was a mistake, though. I think it reveals the kind of sinister historical revisionism that the rightwing operates under. The use of propaganda hardly ever reflects reality and propagandists count on the ignorance of the populace to accept their version of history, which serves an ulterior motive. The deification of our Founding Fathers is typical of conservatives, though. Friedrich Nietzsche, a political philosopher wrongly blamed for inspiring the Nazi Party's ideology, wrote quite brilliantly about the human tendency to deify our ancestors to the point where we feel so indebted and unworthy of their sacrifice that we require blood sacrifices and the scapegoating of unpopular groups to appease our ancestors for our flaws in being unable to live up to their perfection. This is a condemnation of religion as well as politics.

Perhaps Bachmann can take a moment out of her busy day blowing hot air on Capitol Hill and walking down to the Tidal Basin and step inside the Jefferson Memorial to read one of the inscriptions on the wall. If I remember correctly, one of the inscriptions was what Jefferson had written about how we would not expect a man to wear the same coat he wore as a boy, thus future Americans have the right to determine the government they want without a need to feel tied to those Americans who are no longer living. The point is that we are the government and we have the ability to decide for ourselves what we want. It is no betrayal of the Founding Fathers's vision to pass Universal Health Care for all citizens. If Bachmann is truly so committed to the original vision, she should give up her seat in Congress and refuse to vote. After all, women weren't allowed to vote or serve public office when our country was founded and for more than a century later.

I did watch Bachmann's performance for her teabagger supporters. I was wrong about her. Who said that she was just another pretty face with no substance beyond the surface? I don't find her the least bit attractive. As a liberal Democrat, I will admit that I do find Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell to be physically attractive (though not intellectually attractive), but with Bachmann, I don't get it. I think she would've made an excellent Magda Goebbels.

If Republicans want credibility on fiscal matters, they have to admit this one thing: President George W. Bush was the one whose policies put our country in the position it has found itself in for the past couple of years and that they will hold him accountable for his crimes against the American people by making him stand trial for treason. Anything short of this is insincere. After all, Republicans had no problem hanging President Jimmy Carter's failed presidency around every Democrat's neck for a dozen years. If Bush was a Democrat, his economic policies would be widely panned and discredited by Republicans for the next generation. But when conservative economic policies fail, its always because "true conservative economics have never been tried." Yeah, right. It doesn't take a genius to do the "fuzzy math" of what happens when a president gives two big tax cuts that effectively transfer money from the middle class into the wealthy class's bank accounts and launches two expensive wars on credit from Chinese bankers. Our Sputnik Moment? More like a Sputtering Moment.

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