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Our President’s Irresponsible Elitism?

So the headline is a bit extreme to get your attention.  But let me share with you my favorite conservative response to our president’s challenging and unevenly interesting speech last night–Yuval Levin’s.  Here’s a big taste:

This is certainly not a time when the economy is strong or steady, or when the public’s concerns are elsewhere. It is certainly not a moment for business as usual.

The Obama White House tonight seemed to be betting that the public thinks it is such a moment; that everything is basically fine again, and it is safe to go back to the usual kind of Clintonian chatter about solar panels; indeed, that doing so (as opposed to creating more massive new entitlements and taking over more car companies) would be seen as moderate; that we should be careful to learn nothing from the past three years, and from the glimpse they have given us of what a debt crisis might look like. But the result was a speech wholly and oddly divorced from the moment. That is not what a move to the center would look like today. It not only offered no concession to the strong public mood evident in the last election, it evinced no awareness—not even in passing, for rhetorical effect—of the economic facts and pressures underlying that mood and defining this time in our nation’s life. The president merely notified us that he had appointed a commission to look at the deficit, he noted that we ought to think about entitlements, he mentioned the terms “Medicare” and “Medicaid.” But he proposed to do nothing about any of it.  

I think the president and his team are wrong about the public mood, but we shall see. I’m quite sure, however, that they are wrong about this moment on the merits. We have an opportunity in the next few years to avoid a truly disastrous entitlement and debt crisis and foster the conditions for vibrant growth again. We still have a chance to implement reforms that could do this without crushing austerity or terrible disruptions for seniors and other vulnerable Americans. That chance won’t last long, however, and it is profoundly irresponsible to just pretend we needn’t worry about it and can go back to the petty distractions of 1996, or (on the domestic front) 2006. This speech was worse than bland and empty, it was a dereliction of duty. Let us hope that Republicans do not succumb to the same temptation, but rather follow Paul Ryan’s fine example.

I largely agree with Yuval on “a dereliction of duty.”  But, from the point of view of dispassionate social science, I though the speech was a decent rhetorical defense of the president’s strategy at this point.

On health care, the president sort of dismissed the mandate the Republican members of Congress believe they were given by their sweeping victory in the election.  The health-care reform law, the president said, is good, but he’s willing to work with Republicans to make it better.  And he offered an example of trivial tweaking he was willing to accept.  That’s the president’s view of bipartisanship.  But the Republicans believe that bipartisanship means repealing the “affordable care” reform and working toward a a more thoroughly bipartisan “do over.” 

On our “Sputnik moment”:  The original Sputnik moment wasn’t merely economic;  it was viewed as nothing less than a techno-military competition for control of the planet.  And so a lot of the techno-research facilitated and funded was directed toward re-establishing our undoubted techno-military superiority.  A key part of that effort, of course, was our fabulously successful space program.  We might remember, in this context, that the Internet, the GPS,, etc. were basically products of defense initiatives.  Our competition with the Chinese (and others, of course) has an indispensable miltary dimension.  So I wish the president had added that he’s committed to continued miltary modernization–in all its technical dimensions–and to revitalizing the space program to keep control of space from falling into the hands of others.

On our “Sputnik moment” when it comes to education: Back in the innocent days of JFK, it was thought that our failings in education were primarily technical.  For that reason, they could be effectively addressed by government spending.  Now, the failure of our educational system seems more moral–or connected to a breakdown in the social fabric and an excessively technical or bureaucratized and “expert” view of who an educated person is.  So there are plenty of reasons to doubt that more spending or more national regulation could be the key these days to making our schools more competitive.  In this area as well as many others, ordinary Americans doubt that Bigger Government is the answer.  (And that’s why we’re fascinated with the success of the hyper-demanding and hyper-protective Chinese tiger-mom.)

Generally, I really do think that the president’s view of the State of the Union has kind of an elitist tone:  I’m not necessarily against each and every Clean Energy initiative, but such reform doesn’t square with the urgent concerns of ordinary people these days.  Not only that, his entrepreneurial examples of Facebook etc. point in the direction of our hugely rich and remarkably unlikeable (see the movie) techno-meritocracy.  The president didn’t seem to be talking to those making more modest entrepreneurial efforts, small businessmen, independent contractors, and so forth. But the Tea Party, for example, is all about the effects regulations, initiatives, and mandates have on regular guys doing business on Main Street, and it’s equally hostile to both Wall Street and “Silicon Valley.”


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