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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Borde-nough: We live in a spineless era: Obama fails to connect means and ends

Published: January 29, 2010
Section: Opinions

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Wednesday did not connect means and ends. The speech pointed to a few obvious “big and difficult challenges: ”a sluggish economy generating high unemployment, an inefficient health care system that leaves some uninsured, and a gaping annual budget deficit. Solving these problems will likely cause Americans a lot of fear and pain. American leaders will need tremendous willpower to implement needed solutions, and may lose their jobs for their efforts.

Wednesday’s address suggests that Obama lacks the backbone to do this. After devoting much attention during his first year in office to what he then regarded as his “most urgent task, ”that of “shoring up the same [large] banks that helped cause this crisis,” Obama now proposes to charge them “a modest fee.” But he was party to the agreement that allowed those banks to pay their executives large bonuses, and he does not propose to touch bank executives’ bonuses themselves.

Now, he’d like to hand $30 billion to “community banks” to encourage them to “give small businesses the credit they need to stay afloat.” Given what large banks did with their government bailout money, one wonders why small ones would make better stewards of public dollars. Extra money on the bankers’ books will not make poor credit risks into good ones, and only a fraction of this proposed little-bank bailout will actually reach credit-needy small businesses. Similarly, proposed tax credits and incentives for investment in small businesses will probably not rebound to the benefit of workers as much as to small businessmen, who will capture as much of this government largess for themselves as they can. New work generated by these proposals is likely to be of the least desirable sort – the kind that pays low wages and no benefits – because such jobs tend to be the sort produced by America’s small businesses in our time.

That might not be a problem if Obama actually were the Republican that he often sounds like, or if he did not explicitly make “jobs…our number one focus in 2010.” But his proposals don’t go nearly as far as they could to put people to work. After alluding to investments in infrastructure such as interstate highways and highlighting a single railroad construction project in Tampa, Florida, funded by last year’s stimulus bill, Obama said that he will focus on creating “clean-energy jobs.”

There will never be as many of those to go around as there would be if the focus were on more labor-intensive but still necessary projects such as highway repair. Well-placed suppliers of high-tech, clean-energy products will get most of the cash and employ few new workers. And the clean-energy production and distribution facilities that these public investments produce will be held privately. They will be assets paid for by many for the revenue-generating benefit of a few.

Despite his supposed focus on jobs, Obama’s health care plan figured prominently in his Wednesday speech. The president simply renewed his demand to enact his proposals. He may get his wish. But the public does not understand the true nature of his plans. In effect, he proposes to force the private insurance system to take over the cost of insuring many people who would otherwise be insured by Medicaid. This will save the government some money, just as the president claims. But he hasn’t explained why regulating insurers and compelling them to cover more people wouldn’t drive up costs for those already insured or prompt companies supporting employee health plans to end them.

Cutting the federal budget deficit would be the most painful decision of all. That’s why Obama isn’t making it. As he emphasized, his massive spending has been accompanied by crowd-pleasing, Republican-esque tax cuts. His vaunted promise to “freeze government spending for three years” was easy to make because it won’t happen for another year. Until then, Obama can pay for the programs described above and break no promises. Next year, we may learn that the economy didn’t grow as planned, so another year of enormous deficits will be in order.

Obama didn’t promise to freeze all spending. As he put it, “spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will not be affected.” Unfortunately, real budgets don’t work that way. A dollar spent on these programs counts the same as one spent on bailing out bankers or buying paper clips. Cutting entitlement programs is wrong– that’s why they’re entitlement programs. Budget balancing should mean bigger cuts in discretionary funding than Obama will propose, because entitlement programs are part of the budget and must be accounted for.

Moreover, nobody entitled the military to 40 percent of the world’s military expenditures. Nobody has set in stone that vast sums must be spent on homeland security. And nobody is making America conduct two foreign wars. Fearful of threats that look insubstantial next to dangers that our country has faced in the past, we put more and more of our future in hoc each year.

Obama has continued the massive aggregate overspending that appeared under George W. Bush; foreign adventures are only the most objectionable component of this waste. Obama’s plans for this year seem to include another massive budget deficit. Obama, as Bush did, understands that whatever a burgeoning debt portends for the future, it will make him look good here and now.

Sadly, Americans know that too, but they do not undertake efforts to improve upon politics that put such weak-willed, self-centered leaders into office.

The products of a country’s democratic process say a lot about that country, and as we make our way through yet another term in office of a president who is more an image than a man, our democracy has spoken volumes about us. It seems to say that we are living in a spineless era.