For better or worse, the State of the Union has become an annual and anticipated ritual for political nerds looking for a reason to imbibe on a weeknight. Everyone from the Huffington Post to the Daily Caller to the Washington Post came up with their version of a drinking game. For instance, take a sip if the president says, “Let me be clear,” because anything more than that could cause instant scoliosis.
In general these are a good natured way to make the State of the Union a social event while keeping eyes glued to the TV screen. But in the era of President Obama these have simply become a dangerous descent into drunkenness. Why? Because for all his oratorical grandeur, he’s more than a little predictable. As Victor Davis Hanson writes for National Review,
“Five years ago, the well-delivered script caused fainting, now it should earn mostly yawns: Fault the well off; invest more borrowed money in more federal programs that have no demonstrable record of success; blame the bad news on others; ignore the $1 trillion-plus annual borrowing; threaten to use more executive orders; demonize the opposition; take bad news abroad and declare it good, and fluff everything up with the hope-and-change cadences that address the trivial and avoid the fundamental.”
Nail, meet head. In short, he’s become the drinking-game maker’s dream – a redundancy wrapped in a cliché that makes writing the rules an exercise in restraint. But the problem is not predicting what he will say – it’s easy enough to see that he’ll throw out tropes about an ever-improving economy (that never actually improves), a green-energy future (that never seems to arrive) and the need for an opportunity society (that somehow involves simply taxing the Dickens out of the well-off). The real problem is what President Obama doesn’t say.
Namely, he paid mere lip service to one of the biggest problems facing this country – the generation-crushing burden of the federal debt. Yes, he spoke of the need to further reduce the deficit (which he promptly followed up with a plea to eliminate the one tool Republicans have to cut spending – the so-called “sequester”). But when it came to how to accomplish that deficit reduction he demurred.
He included a throwaway line on the need to reform entitlements, despite the fact that it should have been the central thesis of the entire State of the Union.
“Yes, the biggest driver of our long-term debt deal is the rising cost of health care for an aging population,” Obama admitted. “And those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare must embrace the need for modest reforms – otherwise, our retirement programs will crowd out the investments we need for our children, and jeopardize the promise of a secure retirement for future generations.”
That should have been his “aha” moment. Indeed, it nearly perfectly summed up what conservatives have been screaming from the mountaintops for the past four years. But it wasn’t. He whispered it in the dells. Rather than use it to call for sweeping changes that could avert virtual bankruptcy for our generation, he used it as a ploy to sow more class dissension by asking for more tax hikes on the wealthy.
If our generation is to succeed and if our government is to live up to its promises substantial reforms to our entitlement programs must be more than just a mere afterthought of a State of the Union. They must be the central policy focus of the next decade. Because right now things are simply unsustainable. The most recent Medicare Trustees report shows that the program has a $38 trillion liability (about two and a half times the size of our GDP) and the CBO reports that Medicare’s Hospital Insurance trust fund could be exhausted by 2020 – at which point it can no longer pay health plans and providers.
And that’s to say nothing about Medicaid – a program that is already growing out of control – or Social Security – which is already running a deficit and will exhaust its trust fund in 20 years – or even Obamacare – a new entitlement with uncertain (but potentially huge) costs.
While Obama tackled none of these daunting issues, what he did do, in the words of Pete Hegseth, was “frame himself as a sensible politician in a dysfunctional town full of straw-man opponents.” Unfortunately, that resonates with people. Fortunately, Republicans are discovering that they can no longer simply decry big-government, they have to explain why limited government is the true path towards opportunity and prosperity.
Marco Rubio, who gave the Republican response, did this perfectly. We’ll dig into his message in our next post. Stay tuned…