Monday, March 2, 2009

Analysis: President Barack Obama's Address to Congress

Following are excerpts of President Barack Obama's address to Congress [CNN Transcript, RCP Transcript, February 24, 2009]:

What is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more. Now, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that for too long, we have not always met these responsibilities -- as a government or as a people.

Comment: This claim -- that we as a government and as a people haven't been taking responsibility for our future or boldly confronting the challenges we face -- is questionable. Part of the problem with it is that it's not clear what he's asserting.

Is Obama making a claim about peoples' motivations? Is he saying that, up until this point, nobody was trying to take responsibility for our future or trying to boldly confront the challenges the U.S. faces? If so, then what he's saying is false. Of course there were people trying to do just that. They may not have been advocating the same policies as Obama, but they clearly had the same goal.

Obama might instead be making a claim about what policies will effectively address our problems. In other words, Obama could be saying that, up until this point, we weren't adopting the policies that will successfully confront the challenges the U.S. faces and thus secure our future. Though people were previously trying to take responsibility for our future and confront certain challenges, they weren't implementing policies that -- in Obama's view -- will actually achieve those goals.

This second claim is not straightforwardly false. But its truth depends on whether or not Obama's policies really are effective, whether they really will fix the problems we currently face.

And making that case involves making an awful lot of empirical predictions, predictions about what effects various policies (regarding taxes, spending, trade agreements, regulations, etc.) will have on various economic elements (on unemployment, on economic growth, on inflation, etc.).

Contrary to the confidence displayed by our politicians and pundits, such predictions are not easy to make [CDP: How Easy is it to Understand the Economy? February 12, 2009].

If Obama wants to claim that only a certain set of policies will adequately solve our currently problems -- and this seems to be a central assertion of his address to Congress -- then he needs to defend that claim.

However, as is typical of politicians making economic claims -- or empirical claims in general -- he provides very little in the way of evidence to defend this claim.


I say this not to lay blame or look backwards, but because it is only by understanding how we arrived at this moment that we'll be able to lift ourselves out of this predicament.

Comment: Obama is saying that, in order to fix our currently problems, we must understand how they came to be. But he doesn't make much of a case for this claim.

It's not always the case that you need to know how a problem started in order to fix it. For instance, you don't need to know how a tire became flat: you can just replace it and the problem is fixed, without requiring any knowledge about the problem's origin. Likewise, clogged drains can often be cleared without know how they became clogged, and broken bones can often be mended without knowing how they were broken.

Sometimes you do need to know the origin of a problem in order to find the solution to that problem: this is often the case in medicine. Doctors often need to diagnose an ailment before they can effectively treat it (though not always, as in the aforementioned broken bones).

So, Obama needs to explain why our current situation is different from the flat tire or clogged drain situation. That is, he needs to explain why it is that we have to understand the origin of our problem before we can fix it.


In other words, we have lived through an era where too often, short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity; where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter, or the next election. A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future. Regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market.

Comment: As with his earlier claim that we should once more "confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future," is Obama making a claim about motivations or about what policies have (or have had) what results?

Is he saying that people in the past era sought short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity? Is he saying that people gutted regulations in order to make a quick profit? Maybe some people had these motivations, but certainly many did not, in which case Obama is making a false assertion.

If, on the other hand, he's saying that -- whatever peoples' motivations were -- the policies of the past had good short-term results but bad long-term ones, then that is a statement relying on a host of empirical assertions which he has yet to back up.

Obama Demonizes Republicans

Obama clearly makes a disparaging caricature in the above quote. He says that people -- by which he means the administration of President George W. Bush in 2001 -- chose to take the government surplus as an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy. In other words, he is saying that the Bush administration was seeking to enrich the wealthy.

This is accusation is frequently made by Democrats (of which Obama is one) against Republicans (of which Bush is one), and is a standard example of how Democrats demonize Republicans.

Republicans often call for tax cuts, particularly for those who have higher incomes. There's a legitimate debate about whether this is a good idea. On the one hand, lowering taxes might result in the government not getting enough revenue in order to pay for worthwhile programs (although there's also a big debate between Republicans and Democrats about what constitutes a worthwhile program). On the other hand, lowering taxes will give higher income earners more money to spend, which could have lots of benefits for the economy in general, including people with lower incomes.

There's a lot of elements to this debate, largely involving empirical predictions about the effects of different tax and spending policies, as well as debates about which moral priorities should take precedence.

For Obama to sum up this complex debate as simply being a matter of Republicans wanting to give more wealth to the wealthy is nothing less than a caricature, a caricature that serves to demonize Republicans.

It is further misleading in that the phrase "transfer wealth to the wealthy" makes it sound as if Bush was taking money from people who aren't wealthy and giving it to rich people. But this is not the case: lowering taxes on higher income earners means that less money is taken from them. It's not the case that lower income earners were having to hand over more of their money to higher income earners.

Obama often talks about the need for bipartisanship and setting a higher standard of civil discourse: accusing Republicans of taking money from poor people in order to give it to rich people doesn't fit in with either of those goals.


As soon as I took office, I asked this Congress to send me a recovery plan by President's Day that would put people back to work and put money in their pockets. Not because I believe in bigger government -- I don't. Not because I'm not mindful of the massive debt we've inherited -- I am. I called for action because the failure to do so would have cost more jobs and caused more hardships. In fact, a failure to act would have worsened our long-term deficit by assuring weak economic growth for years. That's why I pushed for quick action. And tonight, I am grateful that this Congress delivered, and pleased to say that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is now law.

Comment: Again, Obama is making key empirical claims without backing them up.

What is the proof that not acting "would have worsened our long-term deficit by assuring weak economic growth for years"? And what is the proof that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is the action that will avoid that economic outcome?

Is Obama Appealing to Fear?

Obama is clearly urging us in a certain direction in the name of avoiding a perilous outcome. In other words, he is appealing to fear.

But there's nothing wrong with appealing to fear, in principle. There are things that it's quite reasonable for us to be afraid of, and there are actions that it's quite reasonable for us to take in the name of avoiding what we fear.

Politicians routinely appeal to fear, and they often accuse one another of appealing to fear. Democrats and Republicans frequently accuse one another of fear-mongering and using scare tactics on matters such as the economy, national security, public health, etc.

When they do this, the question we have to ask is whether the fear being appealed to is legitimate, and whether a legitimate response to that fear is being proposed. Appealing to fear only becomes "fear-mongering" and "scare tactics" in the negative sense when the fear is not legitimate or the course of action is not appropriate.

Judging whether someone is appealing to fear in the negative sense involves making predictions -- again, empirical judgments -- about whether something bad is going to happen, and whether adopting a certain course of action will prevent that bad thing from happening.

Because Obama doesn't go much into the empirical substance -- because he doesn't lay out clearly and conclusively the bad outcome we will run into unless we adopt his policies -- he doesn't give us a reason to believe that he's making a legitimate appeal to fear rather than engaging in inappropriate fear-mongering.


Still, this plan will require significant resources from the federal government -- and yes, probably more than we've already set aside. But while the cost of action will be great, I can assure you that the cost of inaction will be far greater, for it could result in an economy that sputters along for not months or years, but perhaps a decade. That would be worse for our deficit, worse for business, worse for you, and worse for the next generation. And I refuse to let that happen.

Comment: Again, this is an appeal to fear, based on a host of empirical claims that Obama does not do much to substantiate in this speech.


I understand that when the last administration asked this Congress to provide assistance for struggling banks, Democrats and Republicans alike were infuriated by the mismanagement and results that followed. So were the American taxpayers. So was I. So I know how unpopular it is to be seen as helping banks right now, especially when everyone is suffering in part from their bad decisions. I promise you -- I get it. But I also know that in a time of crisis, we cannot afford to govern out of anger, or yield to the politics of the moment. My job -- our job -- is to solve the problem. Our job is to govern with a sense of responsibility. I will not spend a single penny for the purpose of rewarding a single Wall Street executive, but I will do whatever it takes to help the small business that can't pay its workers or the family that has saved and still can't get a mortgage.

Comment: Obama seems to be saying that at least some -- if not all -- of the objections raised to mismanagement of bailout funds should be dismissed and ignored because they amount to governing "out of anger" and giving in to "the politics of the moment". In other words, he's rejecting that class of objections as being frivolous, and not based on moral considerations.

Now, we certainly SHOULD reject frivolous objections, but Obama doesn't spell out which objections are frivolous. It's not the case than anyone who objects to his policies is raising a frivolous objection, giving in to anger and momentary political considerations, rather than appealing to legitimate moral considerations.

So, which objections in particular does Obama believe are frivolous?


I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves; that says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity.

Comment: This is probably correct. It's very unlikely that government has no legitimate or productive role to play whatsoever in supporting our prosperity.

However, who has actually said otherwise? Granted, there are people -- Republicans, conservatives, libertarians, etc. -- who believe government should play LESS of a role in our lives and prosperity than Obama envisions. But that doesn't mean they advocate government having ZERO role whatsoever. So who is Obama rebutting with this claim?

It sounds like Obama might be caricaturing those opponents who call for less government intervention than he does. By falsely describing those opponents as being opposed to all government, he can brush them aside easily, like straw men.

But this is a false victory, since it is only achieved by misrepresenting his opponents.

Obama needs to specify who this comment is aimed at in order for us to judge whether it is fair criticism or dishonest caricature.


History reminds us that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas. In the midst of civil war, we laid railroad tracks from one coast to another that spurred commerce and industry. From the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution came a system of public high schools that prepared our citizens for a new age. In the wake of war and depression, the GI Bill sent a generation to college and created the largest middle-class in history. And a twilight struggle for freedom led to a nation of highways, an American on the moon, and an explosion of technology that still shapes our world. In each case, government didn't supplant private enterprise; it catalyzed private enterprise. It created the conditions for thousands of entrepreneurs and new businesses to adapt and to thrive.

Comment: Once more, Obama is making some broad empirical claims without much detail or defense.

In particular, he doesn't answer these questions: would any of these things have happened without government intervention? Would they have been accomplished with less efficiency? Is it always the case that government catalyzes private enterprise in a positive way? Does it ever influence private enterprise negatively?

The examples Obama gives are not analyzed, and cannot be taken as exhaustively representing the effects of government intervention on private enterprise.


But to truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy. So I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America. And to support that innovation, we will invest fifteen billion dollars a year to develop technologies like wind power and solar power; advanced biofuels, clean coal, and more fuel-efficient cars and trucks built right here in America.

Comment: There are several claims here concerning climate change (i.e., global warming), national security, and the cleanliness and profitability of renewable energy that are given little if any substantiation.


Already, we have done more to advance the cause of health care reform in the last thirty days than we have in the last decade.

Comment: Another broad claim, comparing health care reform of the last thirty days to that of the last ten years, that is given little substantiation.


And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country -- and this country needs and values the talents of every American.

Comment: Is dropping out of school really quitting on your country? Is that the same as saying it's unpatriotic? Can we characterize other personal or economic decisions as "quitting on your country"?

If he wants to say that dropping out of school is unacceptable as a matter of morality or personal self-interest, etc., that's one thing. But saying that it's unacceptable with respect to supporting your country is another. It opens up a host of questions about what OTHER actions are unacceptable with respect to supporting your country.

Which, in turn, takes us back to all the discussions in recent years about patriotism, wearing flag pins, supporting the Iraq War, supporting the troops, paying more in taxes, etc. [For instance, see: CDP: Joe Biden Calls it "Patriotic" to Pay More in Taxes, October 7, 2008].


... we will restore a sense of fairness and balance to our tax code by finally ending the tax breaks for corporations that ship our jobs overseas.

Comment: Obama doesn't clearly state how this furthers the cause of fairness (or "balance," for that matter, though I take it he's using the term as a synonym for fairness).

Part of this is because fairness (or justice, to use another synonym) is an ambiguous term, and can refer to several different moral considerations. And, even when it's clear which moral consideration is being alluded to, it's often vague how that consideration applies to concrete examples.

Like most politicians who raise the issue of fairness, Obama does not give any details that would alleviate either the vagueness or the ambiguity.

More, does this same standard of fairness apply to other countries? Should other countries do the same to companies that hire workers and invest in the U.S.? Would that be fair?


To overcome extremism, we must also be vigilant in upholding the values our troops defend -- because there is no force in the world more powerful than the example of America. That is why I have ordered the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, and will seek swift and certain justice for captured terrorists -- because living our values doesn't make us weaker, it makes us safer and it makes us stronger. And that is why I can stand here tonight and say without exception or equivocation that the United States of America does not torture.

Comment: This claim -- "living our values doesn't make us weaker, it makes us safer and it makes us stronger" -- is almost certainly false if it means that there is never a conflict between our values (for instance, respecting human rights) and our safety.

It is certainly the case that we face moral dilemmas, situations where two moral considerations come into conflict and push us in different directions. And it is not difficult to imagine (or even to cull from recent history) situations in which our moral desire to respect privacy, due process, the rule of law, etc. comes into conflict with our desire to protect innocent people from harm and terrorism.

For Obama to simply assert that no such dilemmas exist -- that abiding by one of these moral considerations NEVER involves compromising or giving up on another -- is false.

For instance, since Obama became president, the U.S. has continued to bomb targets in Pakistan [AP: Airstrike Kills 7 in Pakistan, March 2, 2009]. These strikes are done in order to protect U.S. troops in Afghanistan and to kill members or allies of the terrorist groups Al Qaeda, but they occasionally harm or kill innocent Pakistanis.

Isn't the killing of those innocents a bad thing (even if it is believed to be justified in the name of achieving another moral goal)? Isn't this exactly a case of us choosing one moral consideration over another, because the two are in conflict? Don't these strikes represent actions that we take in order to make the U.S. safer, even though they violate the U.S. value of protecting innocent life?

Again, for Obama to say no such conflict exists is demonstrably false.


In words and deeds, we are showing the world that a new era of engagement has begun. For we know that America cannot meet the threats of this century alone, but the world cannot meet them without America. We cannot shun the negotiating table, nor ignore the foes or forces that could do us harm. We are instead called to move forward with the sense of confidence and candor that serious times demand.

Comment: In describing the "new era," Obama is caricaturing the previous administration under Bush.

Under Bush, the U.S. did not attempt to meet "the threats of this century" alone, it regularly met and collaborated with allies such as Great Britain, Japan, Pakistan, etc.

Under Bush, the U.S. did not "shun the negotiating table," it regularly spoke with opponents and competitors in matters including trade and military conflict, such as its negotiations with North Korea regarding that country's nuclear program.

Under Bush, the U.S. did not "ignore the foes or forces that could do us harm," it regularly acknowledged its enemies -- again, it sometimes even negotiated with them, which is incompatible with ignoring them.

Now, this doesn't mean we have to agree with the way the Bush administration carried out any or all of these functions. Certainly, Obama believes there is a lot to be desired in the way the Bush administration performed on these fronts, and it is entirely fair for him to offer criticism.

But it is not acceptable for him to mischaracterize the Bush administration by saying that they did not work with others, they did not negotiate, and they ignored their foes. Such claims are false.


Those of us gathered here tonight have been called to govern in extraordinary times. It is a tremendous burden, but also a great privilege -- one that has been entrusted to few generations of Americans. For in our hands lies the ability to shape our world for good or for ill. I know that it is easy to lose sight of this truth -- to become cynical and doubtful; consumed with the petty and the trivial. But in my life, I have also learned that hope is found in unlikely places; that inspiration often comes not from those with the most power or celebrity, but from the dreams and aspirations of Americans who are anything but ordinary.

Comment: Here, Obama says it is easy to lose sight of the responsibility of governing, and to "become cynical and doubtful; consumed with the petty and the trivial."

He doesn't clearly spell out what he means by "petty" and "trivial" behavior, though. As with most politicians who denounce "negative politics" and ask us to improve our political environment, Obama doesn't specify what we're to avoid and what we're to emulate. He sticks to the abstract, without giving any clear examples of good or bad behavior.

To make matters worse, Obama has made several violations of civil debate in this very speech, particularly with respect to distorting and caricaturing the views of his opponents. When people hear these caricatures, and then hear Obama calling for a higher standard of debate, they are likely to conclude that the two are compatible with one another, even though they aren't.


I know that we haven't agreed on every issue thus far, and there are surely times in the future when we will part ways. But I also know that every American who is sitting here tonight loves this country and wants it to succeed. That must be the starting point for every debate we have in the coming months, and where we return after those debates are done. That is the foundation on which the American people expect us to build common ground. And if we do -- if we come together and lift this nation from the depths of this crisis; if we put our people back to work and restart the engine of our prosperity; if we confront without fear the challenges of our time and summon that enduring spirit of an America that does not quit, then someday years from now our children can tell their children that this was the time when we performed, in the words that are carved into this very chamber, "something worthy to be remembered."

Comment: Obama is asking Americans not to question the patriotism of their opponents, not to insinuate that they don't love their country. There is some value in this sentiment, since one of the problems with out discussions of political and moral matters is that we tend to think the worst about anyone who disagrees with us (for instance, to think that they are unpatriotic or have sinister motivations).

But there are also some problems with this sentiment. There are the more abstract considerations, such as that people sometimes DO have unpatriotic or sinister motivations (though probably not nearly as often as we'd like to think), and that motivations and intentions -- good or bad, patriotic or unpatriotic, noble or sinister -- don't play a terribly conclusive role when it comes to evaluating actions or policies as being morally or politically acceptable.

But, more concretely, Obama doesn't do a very good job of living up to this sentiment in this very speech. He has repeatedly caricatured his opponents, and he has demonized them in at least one instance.

If he really knows that "every American who is sitting here tonight loves this country and wants it to succeed," then why does he keep disparaging so many of them?



Obama's address to Congress was a disappointment on several fronts when it comes to civil, productive debate.

He made many empirical claims without defending them. And he caricatured and disparaged his opponents even while he was calling for us to live up to a higher standard of debate.

Of course it's difficult to defend in depth EVERY empirical claim that your policies depend upon. And of course it can be challenging to ALWAYS be respectful of your opponents views, and to never be dismissive of them.

But the short shrift Obama gave to the empirical assertions he made was not even close to adequate. And the consistently unfair descriptions he gave of his opponents were made even more outrageous by being followed with a call for civil discourse.

-- Civ.

No comments: