Remember "this generation's Sputnik moment"? No? Maybe that's because the moment vanished into thin air just seconds after President Barack Obama heralded its alleged existence in the 2011 State of the Union Address.
Perhaps you recall 2010's promise to "double our exports over the next five years, an increase that will support two million jobs in America"? This target was important enough that we received progress reports in 2011 ("Already, our exports are up") and 2012 ("we're on track to meet that goal ahead of schedule"). The results on deadline-day? Uh, 52 percent of the way there.
State of the Union addresses are so jam-packed with worn-out rhetoric, stillborn initiatives and unacknowledged impotence that those of us with the questionable habit of watching them year after year tend to fling ourselves, with ample justification, straight to the drinking game.
But these emetic pageants also present a rare opportunity to hold the taxpayers' most powerful employee accountable for his misfired words, ideas, and deeds, a process that can throw off some important lessons about the limited utility and effectiveness of government power.
So it's worth noting, while watching whatever stirring words tumble forth tonight, that they are issuing from the same lips that said the following in 2010:
Tonight all of our men and women in uniform, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and around the world, they have to know that we—that they have our respect, our gratitude, our full support. And just as they must have the resources they need in war, we all have a responsibility to support them when they come home. That's why we made the largest increase in investments for veterans in decades last year. That's why we're building a 21st century V.A.
Bolding mine. By 2014, that 21st century V.A. was looking mighty 19th, with appalling wait times for veterans, cover-ups by bureaucrats, and worse. It was no longer the go-to model for government-run health care.
And yet the man ultimately responsible for that mess described the V.A. thusly in his State of the Union Address of just a few months prior: "We'll keep slashing that backlog so our veterans receive the benefits they've earned and our wounded warriors receive the health care—including the mental health care—that they need." Or maybe government just doesn't know what the hell it's doing, including when it is doing very bad things.
There will be many nods at the president's legacy in this last turn at the lectern tonight, and there will be no lack of journalistic examinations of what promises he has failed to keep. But I suspect when the dust of history clears a bit, Obama will be judged on the effects of his economic policies in the wake of the financial crisis. And while he was already trying to spike that particular football last year ("[T]he verdict is clear. Middle class economics works"), a closer look at the man's own stated benchmarks for success illustrate something closer to the opposite.
Here's what Barack Obama said in the 2010 State of the Union address:
We can't afford another so-called economic "expansion" like the one from the last decade, what some call the "lost decade," where jobs grew more slowly than during any prior expansion, where the income of the average American household declined while the cost of health care and tuition reached record highs[.]
Obama presided over the slowest recovery since World War II. Median household income has fallen. Tuition and health care costs have reached record highs. The "lost decade" is at around 15 years and counting.
Tonight, the president will say that the state of our economic union is strong, and he will have some positive trend numbers to cite for that argument. But the lived-in reality of America, the consequences of bailout economics, continues to defy both the rosy depictions and the fatuous predictions of mere politicians.