Some thoughts on the State of the Union Speech,
1. Let's get something straight about where there is controversy and where there isn't. There is little controversy (within the mainstream of the two parties) on some government role in funding basic scientific research on subjects like energy production. There is controversy on whether the government should subsidize energy producers that would otherwise be uncompetitive under the guise of producing jobs. Since Obama likes to use the internet as an example, let's try to explain it in internet terms. The government should have funded the basic research that made the internet possible. The government was right not to offer open ended subsidies to Pets.com. Obama was right when he said he doesn't know which companies and industries will succeed. What he said was right, but he didn't believe what he said.
2. Dave Weigel described Obama's approach in the SOTU as "He used conservative language to sell liberalism with few limits." That is fair enough. It seemed like every third word was investment, innovation, private, companies or competition. It could have been Steve Forbes on his Saturday morning FOXNEWS show. You had to listen closely to hear that he was making an argument for the government direction of capital through various kinds of subsidies. Ross Douthat described Obama's speech as "a reasonably eloquent case for center-left technocracy and industrial policy, punctuated by a few bipartisan flourishes" That is also fair enough but the relationship between the speech yesterday and Obama's agenda is similar to the relationship between the ice above the waterline and the iceberg (probably not an original formulation.) The biggest and most damaging part of the Obama agenda is just to keep us on the present course. The course involves Obamacare strangling the functioning private options for health care (except for the wealthy) and letting the entitlement funding crisis come ever closer until sudden and terrible choices necessitate far higher taxes and far greater government allocation of goods. Obama might sometimes sound like a left-of-center technocrat (and he does have bit of that in him on issues like primary and secondary education) but on the whole, he is ideologically much closer to Nancy Pelosi than Mark Warner.
3. Conservatives who are panning the speech as boring and uninspiring are right but are missing the point. Obama's goal wasn't to inspire. It was to make him seem like an unradical, unthreatening, pro-business kind of guy. I think he probably came across that way to the uncommitted who don't otherwise pay all that much attention to politics. It is a much easier trick to pull off when you aren't trying to get Congress to pass an enormous expansion in federal government spending or an enormous expansion of government power over the health care sector. He was able to pull off the nonideological act in 2008 because he wasn't really responsible for anything and he could promise everything to everybody - including a net budget cut. The combination of the ideological aggressiveness of his own program and the lousy labor market prevented him from playing the nonideological pragmatist role in 2009 and 2010. But even then his Real Clear Politics job approval rating hovered in the not-so-bad 44-46% range. He will be much tougher on the defensive ("hey I'm for a spending freeze and let's fix some of the problems with my health care reform - like the Medicare cuts!") and even tougher if the labor market improves - however slowly. He is clever, determined, principled, and has a rock solid political base. Absent a further economic slump (which is not to be hoped for), he is a damn tough political opponent.
4. The Republican response by Paul Ryan was very good. I would have leaned a little harder on the argument that if politicians don't make prudent cuts now that allow us to transition to a more sustainable system, then those same politicians are going to end up making sharp and sudden cuts that people (especially the elderly) will have a very tough time adjusting to. Prudent cuts aren't austerity. Austerity (and huge tax increases and "death panels") is what is at the other end of all these budget deficits. I've seen Ryan make this argument before, but I think it should have more prominence
5. Ryan isn't Reagan and he shouldn't try to be Reagan. Ryan has his own (all too rare) set of virtues that combine limited government principles with hunger for policy detail. That doesn't mean that Ryan and Ryan enthusiasts don't have something to learn from Reagan. Reagan was usually able to punctuate his arguments with the telling detail, the eye popping statistic or the example drawn from everyday life. Reagan worked really hard to make his arguments relatable to his audience. This isn't a criticism of Ryan's response per se. He managed to say a lot in ten minutes, but more Reagan-style argument crafting combined with Ryan-style detail work might be the ticket.
6. Oh by the way, the projected federal budget deficit for this is year is 1.5 trillion dollars.