The State of the Union Is Not Going to Level With You:
There was one moment of President Barack Obama's 2011 State of the Union address that just stuck in the Rude Pundit's craw. Since Ronald Reagan, the annual address to Congress has included a parade of soldiers and citizens elevated for a moment from average adults to avatars of American awesomeness. The platitudinous nature of this rhetorical trick turns the State of the Union into another special episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
In the midst of discussing education, about halfway through, Obama talked about the good of community colleges, and specifically Forsyth Tech in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The President said, "One mother of two, a woman named Kathy Proctor, had worked in the furniture industry since she was 18 years old. And she told me she’s earning her degree in biotechnology now, at 55 years old, not just because the furniture jobs are gone, but because she wants to inspire her children to pursue their dreams, too. As Kathy said, 'I hope it tells them to never give up.'" The TV cameras showed a gentle-looking woman with glasses who was thrilled to be there.
Goddamnit, the Rude Pundit thought. What a fucking lie. This ain't "and they all lived happily ever after" kind of shit. Proctor's gonna get out of Forsyth Tech with an associate's degree in biotech and, more likely than not, two years of college debt. Even the school's own website says that the starting salary for someone with that degree in the field is $25,000-31,000 a year, and that's in an area of the country where there's an assload of biotech firms to work for. And that's if she finds a job. Unemployment in the region hovers around the 10% mark (9.3% in Winston-Salem). The city of Winston-Salem, by the way, faces a $26 million budget gap over the next five years. The state of North Carolina faces a $3.7 billion budget gap for the next fiscal year, and education is on the chopping block.
In other words, after losing her job and probably her health insurance, after doing the right thing and getting more education and retraining, Proctor is still a 55 year-old woman facing the worst job market in decades. If she finds a job, it'll pay shit wages and probably lack health coverage. Really, President Obama, how the fuck is this a happy-smiley-face story to make us feel good about whatever the fuck is happening with the economy?
Ultimately, that was what was so aggravating about the State of the Union speech. Other than an occasional nod to some abstract notion that "none of this will be easy. All of it will take time," President Obama gave us no sense that it would be anything but easy. He made another pep talk that patently refused to hurt anyone's feelings, that stated beliefs but left them open for compromise, that made it seem less like a "Sputnik moment," as he called it, and more like a flat-tire moment.
All the aspirational shit was fine, some of it was even encouragingly good, but why not be honest about the reasons for it? Hiring more teachers is cool 'cause teachers need respect? How about because most of the industrialized world kicked our asses in recent tests? High-speed rail is groovy because that means our nuts won't be touched by the TSA? How about it's necessary because the air transportation system is overwhelmed to the breaking point? Infrastructure spending is good because we gotta keep up with South Korea? How about because water mains break every two minutes and bridges are on the verge of collapse? Freezing spending? How about spending $500 billion, to start, on all the shit we need and employing hundreds of thousands of people? 'Cause you know how we responded to the Sputnik moment? By the government investing billions of dollars in research and building, not by cutting the deficit. "Win the future"? How about not fucking up the present even worse?
Goddamnit, Americans are stubborn assholes. Don't treat us with kid gloves. Don't tell us it's all gonna be hunky-dory. Take us to the abyss. Force us to look in the deep, dark hole. Grab our ankles and dangle us over it, get us to smell the sulfuric fumes, make us confront the possible future. Then yank us back and tell us how to fill it in and seal it.
At the end of the day, it's a State of the Union speech. People liked it, maybe because his rhetoric was Tea Party folksy. Mostly, Obama told companies that the government will keep giving them money but not really do much regulating. He blamed no one for anything, except "lobbyists" for, one supposes, being lobbyists. He asked us to do virtually nothing, again, but keep on trying, like Kathy Proctor, because, really, as this speech made sure to reaffirm, there is no alternative.
(By the way, Republicans Paul Ryan and Michele Bachmann, both awful in their own way in their responses, seemed like they were talking about another country. At least the President was here.)
(Note: if you want to read the Rude Pundit's whiskey-fueled comments from last night, head over to his Twitter thing.)