The state of the union is weird
January 15, 2016
On Tuesday, the President gave the annual State of the Union address to Congress. It’s a big, ritualized event that sometimes has a little substance to it. Members of Congress, segregated by party, will stand and applaud things they like, sort of like doing the wave in a stadium, only it ends at the aisle. This was Obama’s eighth and final address, and this one felt like he can’t wait to leave town.
I don’t know why I watched it. It’s kind of like attending your cousin’s eighth wedding — you probably could have just sent a card, but somehow, it seemed obligatory to show up. And you never know what might happen. Everybody behaved, and aside from going on about an hour longer than anybody could justify, it was better than watching all those TiVo-ed episodes of "Blood & Oil."
I thought the best line of the whole night came in a discussion of a shifting economy and the reality that most people now will have several completely different careers in their lives. There will be increased demands for re-training. We need backstops to prevent the loss of your job at the buggy whip and harness factory from resulting in complete economic ruin while you get re-trained as a programmer for self-driving cars. In today’s economy, Obama said, the only people who have the same job for 30 years, with guaranteed benefits and a fat pension, are sitting in this room. There was a kind of gasp from the members of Congress. Of course it’s true. But most of them have been there so long they believe they deserve it.
Congress is probably the most worthless assemblage of humanity this side of a super-max prison, and on balance, the convicts probably do less structural damage. But they have things set up so that their districts are all "safe," with boundaries drawn to guarantee longevity in office. And they work three days a week.
Another thing that stood out, even though he didn’t explain it well, is the notion that ISIS is not the same kind of existential threat as Nazi Germany or the Cold War Soviet Union. That’s not to say there is an acceptable level of terrorism (though we seem quite comfortable with an acceptable level of mass shootings in our schools and movie theaters, as long as the shooters aren’t Muslim). The people who were murdered in San Bernardino are just as dead as somebody hit by a German bomb in the London Blitz, and the victims stricken about as randomly. But there is a huge difference in scale, and an entirely different kind of defense is called for. A dozen new aircraft carriers would not have prevented the San Bernardino shooter, who was a US citizen born in Illinois, from going nuts and shooting up his office Christmas party. It’s a different kind of scary.
Obama went through the economic figures that show that the overall economy has made a great recovery since the collapse in 2008. Everything is much, much better — except where it’s worse. For the people gathered in the Capitol to hear the speech, everything is hunky dory. The rest of the country is not feeling the love. For a generation, a lot of people have experienced a steady erosion of income, security, and confidence.
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The GOP response, given by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, was interesting. She started off with the Fox News facts that the economy has never been worse, and then launched into a full-blown attack on Donald Trump. Having the official Republican response denounce their front-runner as a loud-mouthed doofus was completely unexpected.
Nobody mentioned the armed redneck militia occupying the gift shop at an Oregon bird refuge. They are not statistically significant, but are one manifestation of an angry middle class. Their assertions of ownership of federal lands are not based in reality, but their frustrations of being unable to run their businesses without federal involvement probably contain at least a grain of legitimacy.
The anger that demonstrated in the gift shop siege also shows up in the success of the Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns. For years, both major parties have been telling voters that if they elect them, they will set policies that will make their lives better. And then the corporate thumb gets pressed firmly on the scale, and Congress sets policies that protect their donors at the expense of the citizens. Those two outsider candidates have tapped into an underlying anger that the so-called establishment candidates don’t seem to understand.
Roughly 40% of eligible voters boycott our elections. If the remaining 60% is split more or less evenly, that means "none of the above" has been the winner by a large margin for a long time.
The state of the union is weird.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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