"Tonight, we turn the page," announced Barack Obama in Tuesday's State of the Union Address (SOTU). That cliched figure of speech might have made Vox's Ezra Klein melt like a 'tweener at a One Direction concert, but that's about it.
Indeed, to the extent that any one speech matters, last night's SOTU most definitely did not sound the bell of something new and different when it comes to Barack Obama or American politics more generally. Far from it. It represents yet one more reiteration of the same-old, same-old, of a 20th century vision of top-down governance and rank partisanship that already controls and commands far too many aspects of our social, cultural, and economic activities. Like so many American presidents before him, Obama just knows in his bones there's no problem that more money and regulation can't make go away. At least until the next SOTU.
A few years back, it was popular to note that Barack Obama was essentially a continuation of George W. Bush, almost to the point where Bush had gotten a third and even a fourth term. Both of them, after all, were spendaholics who also like to add massive new regulations to the existing tower, both of them added massive new entitlement programs (Medicare Part D for Bush, universal health insurance for Obama). Both supported TARP and bailouts for favored companies. Both were terrible on civil liberties and war (Obama tripled troop strength in Afghanistan for a surge that accomplished nothing). Early on at least, Obama actually was clearly worse on issues such as the drug war (he raided more medical marijuana clinics in California than Bush) and immigration (he deported illegals at far higher rates than his recent predecessors). Where Bush had simply claimed the right to torture and hold indefinitely enemy combatants, Obama was revealed to operate a secret kill list that brooked no outside review from Congress or the judiciary. Obama's spending plans ran into gridlock once the GOP (who was happy to spend spend spend under a Republican president) took control of the House in the 2010 elections (a win made possible by Obama getting everything he wanted in his first two years in office).
Nothing Obama talked about last night represents a turning away from such a misguided and misshapen vision of government's role in daily life.
That's why he pegged his page-turning to recent events, not a change of mind:
After a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis. More of our kids are graduating than ever before; more of our people are insured than ever before; we are as free from the grip of foreign oil as we've been in almost 30 years.
Tonight, for the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over. Six years ago, nearly 180,000 American troops served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, fewer than 15,000 remain. And we salute the courage and sacrifice of every man and woman in this 9/11 Generation who has served to keep us safe. We are humbled and grateful for your service.
Indeed, things are slowly getting better. Whether Obama's economic agenda helped or harried the tepid recovery is a good question. Certainly, his stimulus plan failed by the very yardstick he told us to judge it by. Yes, we've drawn down troops in Iraq (on a timetable drawn up by the Bush administration) and many fewer of our men and women are at risk in Afghanistan fighting a war without a clear goal or strategy. But we are enmeshed in new places and in new ways. Most importantly, we are all over the Middle East and always without an explicit authorization for the use of military force (it was nice of Obama to demand that Congress give him one long after he's committed troops and arms to various places).
But if this sort of thing constitutes turning the page, we should acknowledge that we've simply started a new chapter in the same lousy book. Obama's proposals are not merely incremental but dumb. Make two years of community college as free, ubiquitous, and doubtlessly rotten as K-12 education! Push students into robotics and nursing (decades ago it was computers and Russian)! Give parents more tax dollars to spend on day care! Tax American corporations into coming back to the U.S. while using federal money and pressure to expand their markets overseas!
There's nothing new or exciting in any of this sort of slop. What there is is what my colleague Matt Welch calls "magical pain-free prosperity" for everyone. Got a problem? Get a program! Deficits are down, so let's not talk about rising mountains of federal debt that's tripled on Obama's watch. Instead, let's talk about increasing federal spending. Let's talk about regulating gas and oil more tightly even as we celebrate becoming energy independent. Let's talk about getting "dark money" out of politics even as Obama set records for raising money himself. Let's talk about a new spirit of bipartisanship in the same speech in which you castigate your opponents as putting politics before principle and human decency.
My point here isn't that Obama is particularly awful on any of these scores. It's that he—and his speech on Tuesday—is perfectly representative of the played-out politics of what we might call the long 20th century, an era of mega-government, mega-business, and mega-planning. The short 20th century lasted from the Russian Revolution to the end of the Soviet Union; with it died the full-blown dream of efficient, effective, and compassionate direction of human affairs (that it turned into a nightmare is not a coincidence). In a softer version, the same broad feelings about centralization of power, knowledge, and control governed the Free World in the 20th century, which prospered precisely to the degree it was free. But in both cases, those in power sought to tightly regulate supply and demand of everything from food to sexual preference. Most of the thinking went into controlling the demand side: How do we price things properly so there aren't wasteful surpluses and, worse, destabilizing shortages. There was a supreme belief that demand was knowable and relatively unchanging. The economy, indeed society itself, was a car that could be sped up or slowed down, steered this way or that. A machine anyway, under the control of its operators.
The Mega Era's death started in earnest toward the end of the 20th century, when technology and wealth empowered individuals to disperse and run more and more experiments in living, far from the control of any or at least most authorities. The Berlin Wall didn't "fall"—it was pushed. Similarly, the Internet didn't revolutionize communication and commerce because its earliest iterations were funded by the Defense Department. It flourished only as users pulled it away from its military-industrial roots and all sorts of people trying all sorts of unauthorized and unforeseen things got into the act. The things that revolutionized the latter decades of the 20th century happened in areas in which permission wasn't sought or granted; rather, people did what they wanted and the world caught up.
But Obama, like George W. Bush before him, reminds us that we are still governed by people who are trapped in old models of what progress means and how progress happens. We must fix old-age entitlements that were designed for Depression-era concerns (and we must not talk of them until they are totally broke). We must sort into two political tribes whom are eternal and eternally at odds. We must not radically alter K-12 education by empowering choice and competition but we must fix it by giving away two "free" years of community college. We must fix day care the way it is now by giving people more money to spend on it (after we make it "high-quality" by adding more regulations).
In his discussion of "creative destruction" in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, Joseph Schumpeter noted that too many people, including those in favor of free enterprise, think that there is a fixed amount of goods and services and desires in the world and that the role of political economy is to distribute these fairly and wisely. That's a fundamental mistake, argued Schumpeter, because both what people make and what they want are constantly "mutating" and changing in an ongoing process that leads to new and better outcomes. The most resilient and most flourishing societies are the ones in which experts and authoriites stop trying to slow down innovation and change and stop trying to produce the exact number of widgets—or STEM majors or daycare slots—we'll need in 20 or 30 years. Look at your phone, your computer, your office, the cuisine you eat, the way you shop, the way you communicate with your parents, your kids, your friends—the things that work best in your life probably didn't exist en masse 30 years ago. The stuff that works least well in your life probably did and have been frozen in time by a previous era's genius politicians and planners.
Despite his blandishments about wanting kids to grow up in a better world and "looking to the future instead of the past," there was no Schumpeter in anything Obama said on Tuesday. None at all. Extrapolate from what he was talking about and a generation from now, nothing fundamental in American life will be different. We'll be in more debt, sure, and free and universal K-14 education will be a reality. Daycare will be more expensive but we'll get more tax breaks to pay for it. If taxes and regulations are cheaper and lower elsewhere, multinational corporations will be there and not here. The world will still be an occasionally dangerous place, especially as the children of innocents killed by drones curse their gods to take revenge upon us. It will be this exact world, only older and hence more dispiriting.
Maybe we did "turn the page" last night, President Obama. But we still need a new book for the future.