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Tim Stanley: President Obama's State of the Union address kept the flame burning


US President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address. Photo: Getty Images

US President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address. Photo: Getty Images

US President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address. Photo: Getty Images

THE Democratic Party is infatuated with its past. It has never forgotten the glories of the New Deal years, when Franklin D Roosevelt tempered the free market and brought America back from the brink of chaos. Since 1945, the Democrats have lived in the shadow of Roosevelt’s accomplishments. President Harry Truman tried to replicate the New Deal in the Fair Deal, and Lyndon Johnson attempted to build a Great Society. Even Jack Kennedy had his New Frontier, and Bill Clinton his Bridge to Tomorrow. These men retained the conviction that government is a force for good that can rescue capitalism from itself. They were the keepers of the flame.

Barack Obama kept the faith burning with last night’s State of the Union address. He directly referenced the New Deal when he reminded the audience that it was during the depths of the Great Depression “that America built the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge.” He also reminded them that the New Deal spirit flourished in the postwar years, too, creating a noble middle class: “My grandfather, a veteran of Patton’s Army, got the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. My grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line, was part of a workforce that turned out the best products on Earth. They understood they were part of something larger; that they were contributing to a story of success that every American had a chance to share.” And where Truman once offered a Fair Deal, Obama now offers “a fair shot for all”. That means a war on outsourcing, better education, tax reform and tighter regulation of the financial sector.

“War” is the right word to use, for there was a very martial feel to this State of the Union. Obama called for more attention to be paid to the “home front” and twice contrasted the unity of the armed forces with the anarchy of Congress. His solution to America’s problems seems to be to ask America’s economy and society to emulate the discipline of the army. I’d love to know what Ron Paul thinks of that.

Paul might point out that life isn’t a battlefield to be conquered by brilliant generals. You can’t command a nation in the way you can a troop of soldiers. The President doesn’t have the authority or the means to launch an all out offensive on existential concepts like “unfairness” or “inequality”. Even if he did, the surge wouldn’t work. There are good reasons why every postwar effort to emulate the New Deal experiment has failed. For one, the New Deal’s own record was decidedly mixed – mass unemployment was only ended by World War II. Moreover, we don’t live in the 1930s anymore. If Obama tried to build the Hoover dam today, he would be undermined by his own liberalism. Environmentalists would slap a protection order on the surrounding wilderness. Union bosses would demand overtime. Health and safety would cover the ground below in mattresses. And the workforce would be composed entirely of illegal immigrants – the only people prepared to do grunt work for the minimum wage.

Accepting that the government isn’t going to reconstruct the New Deal works programmes, what was Obama’s solution to America’s woes? Surprisingly, he started to sound a bit like the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, Gordon Brown. Having pledged to create American jobs for American workers, he then sang the gospel of “skills, skill and more skills!” Imitating Brown’s last great social reform, Obama told Congress that he intended to compel all state governments to make kids attend schools “until they graduate or turn 18”. I’m sure that Obama has no Constitutional authority to do that, but education is always the last refuge of a social democrat. That educational standards have historically declined in relation to how much time and money the federal government has invested in education is unimportant – we must learn our way out of recession!

If Obama really is copying Brown, he’d be wise to reconsider his strategy. For not only did Brown lose the 2010 election, but his admirable lust for growth was subverted by his obsession with regulation. The Labour government of 1997-2010 created an alphabet of programmes designed to deal with everything from youth unemployment to low pay, all under the banner of … the New Deal. And it didn’t work. After 13 years, the country was left with chronic joblessness and debt – aided in some part by Brownite regulation. Obama has a passion for that, too. Last night he announced that he wanted an “all of the above” solution to the energy problem, which earned him a standing ovation from Republicans. But then he went on to list the various regulations that would accompany the effort, and the applause died down.

What we got on Tuesday night was a tub-thumping, historically informed Democrat speech. Obama is going to run as Obama – and that’s a bold, liberal thing to do. He deserves praise for sticking to his guns and refusing to compromise on his vision. One might argue that he was at liberty to offer so many government goodies because he knows that the Republican Congress will never pass them. But he should also be criticised for failing to acknowledge that America’s society and economy have moved on from the 1930s. The old ideas don’t work anymore. Newt Gingrich will tell you that they never did – and it’s precisely because Newt would offer a coherent philosophical rebuttal to this liberal agenda that a part of me would really like to see him debate it with the President in November.