High-speed rail and solar shingles are not the answer to America’s “Sputnik moment.”
No president before Barack Obama has been so right and so wrong.
When in his State of the Union speech Mr. Obama said, “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” citing the emergence of global competition from the likes of China and India, he was right.
Minutes later he proposed to cover the country with high-speed rail and companies making solar shingles.
High-speed rail and solar shingles? If that’s the president’s idea of meeting our Sputnik moment, then Houston, we have a problem.
About halfway into the speech, I began to wonder: What is John Boehner thinking? Let’s first welcome back the tradition of House Speakers who bring nothing but a poker face to the State of the Union. (The vice president re-tightening his tie in the middle of the speech was a minor Biden classic.)
I’m guessing that about the time the president was calling investments in clean energy “the Apollo projects of our time,” the new Speaker was thinking: “This is bunk,” or some word to that effect.
That probably wasn’t Mr. Boehner’s first thought. Before the bunk arrived, his first thought was: “We’re in trouble.”
If Barack Obama had come even close to matching policies with the sentiments he spun across the House chamber in the first sections of that speech, the Republicans would have been dealing with a formidable new centrist president.
The speech’s prelude could have been delivered by Ronald Reagan or written by the conservative entrepreneurial Utopian George Gilder.
In a single generation, “the rules have changed,” he said, propelled by technology. “The naysayers predicting our decline” are wrong. When moments later Mr. Obama said, “We are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea,” one felt the ghost of the Gipper hovering nearby. The president called forth more of those spirits, praising “the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny. That’s why centuries of pioneers and immigrants have risked everything to come here.”
And: “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” Yes!
And: “Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation.” Oh, yes!
Even an Obama naysayer was thinking, Go for it, Mr. President. Unleash our nation of pioneer entrepreneurs with incentives to work, save and invest. (But why the weird slap at the all-American competitiveness of the Super Bowl?)
For a while Tuesday night, it appeared Mr. Obama would replicate Bill Clinton’s almost sci-fi ability to absorb his opposition’s best ideas, such as welfare reform, and re-infuse them into the body politic as his own. But no. We got high-speed rail and solar shingles.
Barack Obama believes what he believes. The ideas he came in with are the ideas he will go out with, and nowhere in that speech was there a fully formed policy idea reflecting authentic belief in the private economy.
The recently promised and much-needed regulatory review was offset with a paean to regulation. “It’s why we have speed limits.” He somehow felt compelled to tell productive suburban families that he’ll try to rescind the tax cut for them, the $250,000 “millionaires.”
Once past the Reagan moment, the Obama policy menu had three entrees: clean energy, education and infrastructure. This was lifted, almost verbatim, from the Obama budget message two months into his presidency: “Our budget will make long overdue investments in priorities—like clean energy, education, health care, and new infrastructure.” He extolled “new jobs that pay well” such as “installing solar energy panels and wind turbines.”
This isn’t a vision. It’s an obsession.
Sending the completed trade agreements with Colombia and Panama to Congress for ratification should have been a lay-up for a president seeking the center. That’s not happening.
What’s ahead? Mainly one thing: November 2012.
If the State of the Union disappointed policy wonks, it’s because the Obama presidency has entered full campaign mode. His State of the Union was a road map to a second term. Draw the Republican Congress toward the post-November spirit of reform on spending, entitlements and taxes, let these ideas twist in the wind of endless negotiation, pocket the “bipartisan” effort, and run out the clock to a three-point November victory.
After ObamaCare and financial re-regulation, the remaining Obama years are looking like a presidency to nowhere. Even if you believe in green jobs, that’s an industry off in the future. Beyond the Keynesian liniment oil of public spending, he’s offering almost nothing for the here-and-now economy.
Rep. Paul Ryan, in his response, was right that “our nation is approaching a tipping point.” Either the government leads the economy, as proposed in the last two-thirds of Mr. Obama’s State of the Union, or it will be driven into the 21st century by the nation’s pioneer legacy of individual innovation, as he seemed to say in the first third of the speech.
If you belief it’s the latter, six more years of chasing Mr. Obama’s idea of investments will be a waste of precious time. The Super Bowl of global competition is well into the first quarter. The future is now.
Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal