Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Obama's State of the Union Address: A Response to Nathaniel

President Obama delivered his State of the Union address last week. My younger brother has a piece in the Yale Daily News which extensively criticizes the speech. Nathaniel complains that the speech started with an inspirational message but "soon fell into a quagmire of policy." Nathaniel criticizes the speech for focusing too much on policy minutia and argues that, while referencing Kennedy, Obama fails to understand that inspiration requires large goals, not policy details. Overall, Nathaniel is correct that this was a disappointing speech. However, it was not disappointing because it went into detail: it was disappointing because the details were unimpressive.

While Nathaniel is correct that the speech was not very inspirational, he misses a broader point: We need policy expertise, and a President who is willing to present a State of the Union that discusses real policy issues is a good thing. After 8 years of George W Bush's flag-wrapping jingoism, after 8 years of Bill Clinton's contentless addresses, the American people should be happy that a President is willing to discuss serious policy issues. And if the American people don't like that, that's a problem with the American people, not a problem with their President.

Nathaniel has two other criticisms of the speech: that Obama was unwilling to take a stand on anything remotely controversial, and that Obama called for largescale spending that the recent elections show is not desired by the American people. These criticisms seem contradictory. One cannot in one paragraph complain that Obama was a coward and then in the next paragraph complain that Obama is too willing to engage in spending that many people don't want.

Some parts of Nathaniel's column do have merit. Nathaniel correctly identifies that Obama's comments about school reform were close to toothless. And Nathaniel correctly points out that Obama did not emphasize the degree to which the proposed initiative will place heavy burdens on the American people. And it seems disingenuous for Obama to claim to be willing to fund the " Apollo Projects of our time" while calling for a freeze in domestic spending.

While I disagree with much of Nathaniel's criticism, I am far from happy with Obama's speech. It certainly had its good points, but it had many failings. Obama failed badly in his discussion of energy policy. He gets points for mentioning nuclear power, something he has in the past downplayed. However, when discussing biofuels, he made no mention of the fact that the most prominent attempt at biofuel, corn based ethanol, is inefficient, environmentally damaging, and raises food prices which hurts the poor here as well as people in the developing world.

Similarly, Obama's emphasis on electric cars was similarly unpersuasive. The President did not discuss that electric cars’ power has to come from the general grid. While electric cars do overall pollute less and use less energy, this stems from economies of scale more than anything else. And the impact is not high. While Obama did discuss the energy of the future, he proposed no funding for research into genuinely new energy sources, such as fusion power. (In the particular case of fusion power, the US is putting resources into ITER, the international tokamak reactor, but the US is putting no money into other forms of fusion such as stellarators.)

Obama's discussion of school systems used metrics which are less than ideal. In particular, the fraction of a population which is going to college is an awful metric for success of students. Students who go to college are often unprepared and often come out not much better prepared than they went in. Moreover, many jobs, even high-tech jobs, don't require college degrees. We have serious problems with people going to college on loans they are unable to repay.

Obama was correct to talk about policy proposals in his address. The problem is not the discussion but the content of those policies.

1 comment:

Noah said...

I really, really have to take issue with your brother's claim that:
"In many ways, Republican Paul Ryan’s response to the State of the Union succeeded where Obama failed. Ryan touched on policy, but transitioned to principles. He talked about the budget, but then asked American’s deeper questions about the government’s purpose. The Republicans picked up the mantel of leadership last night and showed America how to dream."

Paul Ryan's speech showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the actual policy issues that he claims to understand so well. For more on this point, see: