Obama's History Channel

After months in which the Republican candidates for president have dominated the nation’s political discourse—likely, to their own detriment— President Barack Obama retook center stage last night with a State of the Union address that was the overture to his own re-election campaign. His theme was the indispensability of collective action—of national purposes advanced by public commitments to such mega-goals as the reindustrialization of America, with the burdens and rewards shared equitably by all. (At times, the speech sounded like a rebuttal to Maggie Thatcher’s assertion that there is no society, just individuals.) At the same time, however, Obama vowed to go it alone, if needs be, in reaching those goals—or, more precisely, that if congressional Republicans weren’t going to help him, he’d call them out again and again.

The speech mixed Thomas Jefferson (attacking finance) and Alexander Hamilton (fostering domestic manufacturing, making the case for public investment in new energy technology) and Harry Truman (running against a do-nothing Congress). There’s nothing new in Obama’s mix of Jefferson and Hamilton, but Harry Truman is a welcome, if belated, addition to Obama’s repertoire. With the polls showing the public clearly fed up with the congressional GOP, however, Obama took out after them even in his opening remarks and his peroration—contrasting the sense of common purpose he ascribed to our armed forces who came home from Iraq and the Navy Seals who killed Osama bin Laden with the arguments that paralyze Washington. Even if Mitt Romney didn’t at times seem like a latter-day version of Thomas Dewey in all his posed stiffness, the transformation of Obama into Truman looks well under way.

The Hamilton streak was pronounced as well. Obama not only proposed to restructure corporate taxes to penalize offshorers and give a break to domestic (particularly high-tech) production, he also announced for the first time a trade-enforcement unit to investigate and litigate violations of trade laws. Oddly, the U.S. has no such office now—if a company, union, or industry is hurt by, say, China’s illegal subsidies to an industry, it is they, not the government, who has to bring the case and amass the evidence. Obama’s new unit would give the government the ability to do that itself. His further proposal to match the governmental assistance that other nations give to their exporters needs some fleshing out: By one estimate, China has provided $40 billion in subsidies to its solar-power industry. Is Obama proposing to go that far? Whatever the details, Obama has committed himself to a broad industrial policy to help manufacturing.

In a sense, the president is just catching up with the Republican presidential field. Romney has vowed to slap tariffs on Chinese imports if they continue to depress the value of their currency, while Rick Santorum has called for eliminating taxes on domestic manufacturing.

But Obama has seen their Hamiltonianism and raised the stakes with a more Jeffersonian approach as well. In particular, he sided with numerous unions, community groups and financial reformers by announcing the establishment of a joint task force, co-chaired by New York State’s crusading Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, to investigate the conduct of banks in peddling dubious mortgages and the derivatives on same.  The decision emerged at the end of prolonged, often disputatious, negotiations between the Justice Department and the states' attorneys general—some of whom, with Schneiderman in the lead, resisted the administration’s initial proposal to get five big banks to pay roughly $25 billion to homeowners wronged by robo-signing, in return for waiving the banks’ potentially far more serious misconduct in originating, bundling, and reselling bad mortgages. Schneiderman, Delaware’s Beau Biden, Massachusetts’ Martha Coakley, and a few other attorneys general insisted that any such deal had to come after a rigorous investigation of the banks' role in mortgage and mortgage-derivative misrepresentation, and whatever prosecutions would eventuate from it. Last night, Obama endorsed their position, and, by establishing the task force and, administration officials said, designating Schneiderman to head it, opened the door to the prospect of bankers facing prosecution for financial crimes. What a concept.

There was, in fact, a Hamiltonian-Jeffersonian subtext to Obama’s vision. Large advanced economies tend to be dominated by a particular sector. In mid-20th-century America and in Germany today, manufacturing dominates, which historically has tended to create a somewhat more egalitarian economy and society. In America today and in Britain for some time now, finance has dominated, which tends to hollow out a domestic economy and greatly exacerbate inequality of income and wealth. The resurrection of manufacturing and the diminution of finance go hand in hand with Obama’s proposals to create a fairer tax structure.

These are consummations devoutly to be wished. But difficult as it may be to change our taxes, it will be far more difficult to bring back manufacturing. The proposals Obama suggested are a good start, but even renascent manufacturing will not of itself bring back America’s middle-class majority. For one thing, factories are so heavily mechanized that it takes far fewer workers today to do the same jobs their predecessors did just 15 years ago. For another, with private-sector unions almost extinguished, the new hourly pay level for manufacturing workers in America is somewhere between $15 and $19 an hour—that is, between $30,000 and $38,000 a year. That’s not the kind of middle-class wage that unionized manufacturing workers made during the second half of the last century. Ultimately, there’s simply no way a nation can attain a vibrant middle class when its workforce is all but de-unionized. Obama’s new positions on manufacturing, like his tax proposals, are a necessary but not sufficient condition to rebuild the great American middle class.

Obama’s more short-term, though no less important, goal was to set the terms of discussion for the upcoming campaign. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, delivering the Republican response, returned the subject to the current condition of the economy, or, more precisely, the debt. (The chief effect of Daniels’s talk was probably to make Republicans think less of the contrast between him and Obama, and more—wistfully—of the contrast between him and the GOP’s actual existing presidential candidates.) Obama is wagering that the course he’s charting will contrast so positively with the ones that the Republicans lay out that he can charge up his base and win over enough of the center to prevail over not just his Republican opponent but his real opponent— a stubborn, still deeply dysfunctional economy.            

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