Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Civility Watchdog: President Barack Obama's 2015 SOTU

The following is a look at President Barack Obama's January 20, 2015, State of the Union speech, and some of the political tropes at play in it.

"It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next 15 years and for decades to come. Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort? Will we approach the world fearful and reactive, dragged into costly conflicts that strain our military and set back our standing? Or will we lead wisely, using all elements of our power to defeat new threats and protect our planet? Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another? Or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?"
Comment: These are platitudes. Of course people want an economy where everyone does well, a foreign policy that wisely manages conflicts, and a nation where people work together productively. The problem is that people have very different ideas about how to achieve those goals.

"In two weeks, I will send this Congress a budget filled with ideas that are practical, not partisan."
Comment: This remark is along the lines of "ideological" or "common sense" or "bipartisan" rhetoric. Partisanship is a result of disagreements about what ideas are practical or not. Does anyone support ideas that they think are impractical?

"America, Rebekah and Ben’s story is our story. … You are the reason that I ran for this office. You are the people I was thinking of six years ago today, in the darkest months of the crisis, when I stood on the steps of this Capitol and promised we would rebuild our economy on a new foundation. … And over the past five years, our businesses have created more than 11 million new jobs. We believed we could reduce our dependence on foreign oil and protect our planet. And today, America is number one in oil and gas. America is number one in wind power. … And thanks to lower gas prices and higher fuel standards, the typical family this year should save about $750 at the pump. We believed we could prepare our kids for a more competitive world. And today, our younger students have earned the highest math and reading scores on record. Our high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high. More Americans finish college than ever before. … At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits. Instead, we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years. This is good news, people. So the verdict is clear. Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work as long as politics don’t get in the way."
Comment: What evidence does Obama have that these accomplishments are the results of his policies, rather than the results of policies another president (or Congress) pushed for, or the result of forces outside the influence of the government? This seems like "cum hoc ergo propter hoc" reasoning — "it happened after I came into office, therefore it happened because I came into office" — which is flawed reasoning.

"We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance, or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street, or refighting past battles on immigration when we’ve got to fix a broken system. And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, I will veto it. It will have earned my veto."
Comment: What is wrong with "refighting past battles"? When Obama came into office in 2009, he pushed for health care reform, comprehensive immigration reform, and a host of other causes that had been frequently discussed in politics. Was he wrong to "refight" these "past battles"? If it was OK for him to do so then, why can't his opponents do the same now? It can't be that "refighting past battles" is only OK depending on whether someone likes the result of those past battles.

"And in fact, at every moment of economic change throughout our history, this country has taken bold action to adapt to new circumstances and to make sure everyone gets a fair shot. We set up worker protections, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid to protect ourselves from the harshest adversity. We gave our citizens schools and colleges, infrastructure and the Internet -- tools they needed to go as far as their effort and their dreams will take them. That’s what middle-class economics is -- the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, everyone plays by the same set of rules. We don’t just want everyone to share in America’s success, we want everyone to contribute to our success."
Comment: It is a platitude to say that everyone should get a "fair shot" and "pay their fair share". While it might be true that legislation like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and so forth were passed with the intention of promoting fairness, there has been a lot of disagreement about whether these initiatives really are fair. And these disagreements have fallen along the usual lines: for instance, how do we treat people equally, how much aid do people deserve, and how much should everybody (including those receiving aid) be obligated to contribute in order to support others? In his numerous references to fairness, Obama does little to address these controversial details.

"And to everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise."
Comment: This is a straw man, as opponents of a minimum wage don't necessarily believe that $7.25 an hour (the current federal rate) is a living wage. Their objections often involve a belief that raising the minimum wage (say, to $10.10 an hour, as many propose) will lead to job losses or less hiring, or are based in broader objections to government price controls (which the minimum wage is a form of). Would Obama find it acceptable if someone said, "Mr. President, if you believe you can run a business that increases labor costs by about 40% without firing any employees, go try it. If not, don't vote for a minimum wage hike"? Or would he say that was an unfair caricature of his position?

"But you know, things like childcare and sick leave and equal pay; things like lower mortgage premiums and a higher minimum wage -- these ideas will make a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of families. That’s a fact. And that’s what all of us, Republicans and Democrats alike, were sent here to do."
Comment: This is a poor argument. Republican ideas such as lowering tax rates, simplifying the tax code, and decreasing government regulation would also make a difference in the lives of millions of Americans, so should Obama have to support them? The point is that there is a legitimate dispute about which policy changes are meaningful and beneficial overall, and Obama is glossing over that disagreement.

"Look, I’m the first one to admit that past trade deals haven’t always lived up to the hype, and that’s why we’ve gone after countries that break the rules at our expense. But 95 percent of the world’s customers live outside our borders. We can’t close ourselves off from those opportunities. More than half of manufacturing executives have said they’re actively looking to bring jobs back from China. So let’s give them one more reason to get it done."
Comment: This sounds like a straw man. Who has said that they don't want overseas trade?

"As Americans, we don’t mind paying our fair share of taxes as long as everybody else does, too. But for far too long, lobbyists have rigged the tax code with loopholes that let some corporations pay nothing while others pay full freight. They’ve riddled it with giveaways that the super-rich don’t need, while denying a break to middle-class families who do."
Comment: This is "Americans want" rhetoric. As I mentioned previously, there are substantial disagreements among Americans about what constitutes fairness in general, and a fair tax code in particular.

"My first duty as Commander-in-Chief is to defend the United States of America. In doing so, the question is not whether America leads in the world, but how. When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military -- then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world. That’s what our enemies want us to do."
Comment: This seems like a straw man. Who has said that our first response should be to send in our military, and on which foreign policy challenge did they say it?

"In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new."
Comment: Obama is claiming that the embargo on trade with Cuba is a failed policy, and that adaptation and adjustment rather than persistence is the right tactic.

"You know, just over a decade ago, I gave a speech in Boston where I said there wasn’t a liberal America or a conservative America; a black America or a white America -- but a United States of America. I said this because I had seen it in my own life, in a nation that gave someone like me a chance; because I grew up in Hawaii, a melting pot of races and customs; because I made Illinois my home -- a state of small towns, rich farmland, one of the world’s great cities; a microcosm of the country where Democrats and Republicans and Independents, good people of every ethnicity and every faith, share certain bedrock values. Over the past six years, the pundits have pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn’t delivered on this vision. How ironic, they say, that our politics seems more divided than ever. It’s held up as proof not just of my own flaws -- of which there are many -- but also as proof that the vision itself is misguided, na├»ve, that there are too many people in this town who actually benefit from partisanship and gridlock for us to ever do anything about it. I know how tempting such cynicism may be. But I still think the cynics are wrong. I still believe that we are one people. I still believe that together, we can do great things, even when the odds are long."
Comment: Obama is accusing his critics of being cynical, and indulging in "unify the country" rhetoric. He is also calling for a higher standard of debate. But, as is typical with such calls, he isn't admitting to any specific mistakes he has made, any particular acts of incivility. An important part of teaching people how to engage in civil debate is to point out failures in civil debate so people know to avoid them. But Obama is leaving listeners with the impression that he hasn't made any mistakes, or, at least, he isn't detailing any of his mistakes as a way of teaching others how to do a better job at civility and civil debate.

"So the question for those of us here tonight is how we, all of us, can better reflect America’s hopes. I’ve served in Congress with many of you. I know many of you well. There are a lot of good people here, on both sides of the aisle. … Imagine if we did something different. Understand, a better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine. A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears. A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues and values, and principles and facts, rather than “gotcha” moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives. … If we’re going to have arguments, let’s have arguments, but let’s make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of this country."
Comment: Again, this is another call to set a higher standard of political discussion, and to uphold civility and civil debate. But such a call is a platitude unless you give specifics about how it is we're supposed to be civil to one another. What concrete examples of demonizing does Obama think should be stopped? Will Obama admit to any instances of demonizing his opponents? Or does he think that it's only his opponents who resort to demonizing?

"I have no more campaigns to run. My only agenda -- I know because I won both of them."
Comment: It's not clear what Obama was trying to communicate with this comment. It's certainly true that he won two presidential elections — in 2008 and 2012 — but does that mean he believes he has a mandate to carry out his agenda? If so, how does the fact that his party, the Democrats, lost many congressional seats in the 2010 and 2014 midterms affect that mandate?

"Because I want this chamber, I want this city to reflect the truth -- that for all our blind spots and shortcomings, we are a people with the strength and generosity of spirit to bridge divides, to unite in common effort, to help our neighbors, whether down the street or on the other side of the world."
Comment: This is a call to unify the country and end divisiveness.

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