Candidate Obama in 2008 said repeatedly that tax breaks which reward U.S.-based corporations for "shipping jobs overseas" needed to be ended. After his inauguration, however, other, apparently more pressing issues (stimulus, health care, etc.) took precedence, and we heard little in his public addresses about ending such tax breaks. Even if the issue came up in Congress in the first two years of the administration (and it might have -- I don't follow tax policy closely enough to know), I'm reasonably sure those parts of the tax code are still in place. But the State of the Union speech this evening hit a rather different note on tax policy: the emphasis fell on lowering corporate tax rates, with an eye supposedly to creating a climate more conducive to hiring and job-creation. There was a glancing reference to ending loopholes in the corporate tax scheme, another glancing reference to ending tax breaks for oil companies, but the emphasis was clearly on a more 'business-friendly' approach -- one dictated, or perceived to be dictated, by political and economic 'realities'.
Listening to the State of the Union this evening, you'd think that lots of Americans are just chomping at the bit to start small businesses and become entrepreneurs, and all they need is a few encouraging words and more government investment in certain kinds of research-and-development to propel them off their butts and to the drawing boards. Of course there are creative people who start businesses in their garages and succeed brilliantly, but most small businesses, I believe, actually fail rather than succeed, and the commanding heights of the U.S. economy continue to be ruled by huge multinational corporations like, oh, General Electric, a company that has closed many U.S. plants and laid off many U.S. workers in the past 25 or so years (as have many others) and whose chairman was just appointed by the President to be head of a new 'jobs council'. (Bit of a through-the-looking-glass effect here?)
Another prominent theme in the speech tonight was education. The emphasis here was, as one might have expected, almost entirely instrumental. We need a more educated population because the jobs of the future will increasingly require post-secondary education, so the message went. But of course this is post-secondary education of a particular kind -- technical, scientific, narrowly vocational. If you're a young person not interested in science, applied math, and technology, the President's message had very little for you: no mention that I recall of the arts, literature, history, the social sciences, philosophy. Of course not: these things have no immediate, direct vocational value, and the President didn't even bother with the usual comforting cliché about the benefits of a liberal arts education in encouraging transferable skills, critical thinking, etcetera, etcetera. Such honesty is perhaps on one level brutally refreshing, though it does leave one wondering, as I say, about the fate of those whose talents lie in other areas than science and math. I guess some observers who are in a cruel mood might say, well, it's just their own bad luck for having been born with the wrong set of dispositions; and yet one can't help noting that most of the people who were loudly cheering the President's words in the House chamber are themselves not scientists, not applied mathematicians, not entrepreneurs (except for a few select invited guests), and the President's own education, of course, was not in math or the sciences.
If one has lived long enough and heard enough State of the Union addresses, it is possible to find them depressingly similar in certain respects: how many times have presidents called for improvements in education and in international competitiveness? For a simplification of the income tax system? Not even a president with Barack Obama's formidable rhetorical and expository skills can completely avoid the impression that much of these occasions consists simply in going through certain specified motions, much like a dancer or actor following a script, and that if the right keywords are struck -- competitiveness, entrepreneurial spirit, clean energy, high-speed rail, meeting the challenges of the digital world -- people will applaud and all will be well. And then of course you end with a reminder that "none of this will be easy," lest anyone actually dare to suppose that some concrete achievements might be quickly forthcoming. This is not, I hasten to add, a criticism of Obama so much as a criticism of the form: the State of the Union has increasingly become a set of quasi-mandatory figures of speech, much as have, say, the public statements of nominees in Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
The last part of the speech, on foreign policy, had the air of an afterthought. The obligatory references to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, where the President said that safe havens of terrorist/extremist elements were shrinking as never before, conveniently avoiding any specific mention of the difficult, precarious position the government of Pakistan is in vis-a-vis, e.g., Baluchistan and areas in the northwest like North Waziristan. No mention of drone strikes, of course, since the U.S. does not officially acknowledge that they exist. No mention of grand strategy or anything approximating it. No mention of continuing violence and political gridlock in Iraq. And South Korea, our competitor in jobs and education and exports in the first part of the speech (though this was tempered somewhat by the call for ratification of the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement), is magically transmogrified into our brave ally in the last part of the speech, standing up to potential aggression by the North. I think the whole foreign policy section could have been dispensed with: the performance had already been given, the prescribed moves made, the applause lines spoken, the new spirit of bipartisanship affirmed, and everyone was eager to leave.