Saturday, January 30, 2010

U.S. Economy: Does ‘Wait’ mean ‘Never’?

BY ERNEST COREA Republished kind permission of IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

WASHINGTON DC (IDN) - Article II, Section 3, of the U.S. constitution directs the president “from time to time” to give the Houses of Congress information on the State of the Union, and “recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

President Barack Obama fulfilled that obligation for the first time on January 27, 2010 with a State of the Union address that was informative, challenging, conciliatory, witty, and occasionally defensive.

The preceding year was tumultuous, replete with racism, irrelevant and insulting questions about Obama’s birthplace, wild outbursts of opposition to his policies, crude lies about health care reform, political polarization -- and mis-steps by the administration. Obama showed no signs of being fazed by any of this.

His presidential manner and self-confidence were a distinct contrast from the edginess of many of his fellow Democrats, following their debacle in Massachusetts on January 19 when a seat held by Senator Edward Kennedy for 47 consecutive years rolled over to a Republican.

While Obama acknowledged that his administration “has had some political setbacks this year, and some of them were deserved,” he showed no signs of despair, no sense of confusion, no indication of his wanting to “cut and run” from daunting challenges.

He was interrupted by 95 rounds of applause. “Time” magazine’s political analyst and author Joe Klein said of the address that its “eloquence and sense of purpose were riveting…..This was Obama at his best.” Tom Shales of the “Washington Post,” better known for delivering caustic knockout blows in writing than for distributing compliments, wrote: “As a persuasive political speaker, he’s got no serious competition.”

Not everybody agreed, of course. Obama extended the hand of bipartisanship to Republicans who responded by sitting on theirs. House Minority Leader, Congressman John Boehner, dismissively said that Obama had presented “more of the same job-killing policies.”


Obama’s address dealt with some foreign policy issues but its primary emphasis was domestic, because that is the focus of public attention right now.

The role of the administration when it assumed office has been compared to that of the shovel-ready brigade in a circus which walks behind the elephants, picking up and moving away what they leave behind.

The imagery is particularly appropriate because the departing Bush Administration was from the Republican Party whose symbol is the elephant. On the other hand, there are numerous commentators who believe that some Democrats try hard to live up to the reputation of their party symbol -- the donkey.

Obama used more elegant language. He did however describe the problem-ridden and complex nature of the legacy he inherited, as well as the sometimes unpopular measures needed to reduce and eventually eliminate their impact on the American economy and on American life.

“At the beginning of the last decade, the year 2000, America had a budget surplus of over $200 billion,” he pointed out. “By the time I took office,” he continued, “we had a one-year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade.

“Most of this was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts, and an expensive prescription drug program. On top of that, the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion hole in our budget. All this was before I walked in the door.”

Faced with catastrophic developments in the finance sector, his administration was compelled to concentrate on “saving” the banks, an exercise that was “about as popular as a root canal.”

Nevertheless, it had to be done, and to offset the negative reaction to government support for big banks, meaning big money, while the unemployed and others suffered, said Obama, other steps were taken “to get our economy growing again.”

The instrument of that effort was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the “stimulus package,” which authorized the Obama administration to spend $787 billion on jump starting the stalled economy.


Obama described the impact of that package in terms of both jobs created and jobs saved. He also listed other actions that had at least slowed down the free fall of the economy.

“The worst of the storm has passed,” Obama said. His assessment was partially confirmed by the Commerce Department which subsequently announced that the economy grew by 5.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009, the fastest pace in over six years.

“But,” he acknowledged, “the devastation remains. One in 10 Americans still cannot find work. Many businesses have shuttered. Home values have declined. Small towns and rural communities have been hit especially hard. And for those who'd already known poverty, life has become that much harder.

“This recession has also compounded the burdens that America's families have been dealing with for decades -- the burden of working harder and longer for less; of being unable to save enough to retire or help kids with college. So I know the anxieties that are out there right now. They're not new. These struggles are the reason I ran for President.”

His reaction to the devastation he talked about, a party strategist explained, is that of a former community worker who genuinely feels the pain of the disadvantaged and disconnected. He is also a policy wonk, whose reaction to problems is to seek solutions.

Additionally, of course, he is a politician who is no doubt painfully aware that as unemployment increases his approval ratings will fall. This co-relation has been documented by the well reputed Pew Research Centre in a recent study.

So -- on to possible solutions to an inherited agenda of problems.


The second half of the constitutional stipulation on the “state of the union,” as noted above, is operational. It requires the president to “recommend” for consideration by the Houses of Congress, “such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

For the short and medium term, he outlined a series of measures based on the assumption that “the true engine of job creation…. will always be America’s businesses.” These include:

- support to community banks that provide small businesses with credit, using $30 billion of the money that Wall Street banks have re-paid the government from what was loaned to them as part of their bailout;

- a tax incentive for all businesses, large and small, to invest in plants and equipment;

- a new tax credit to small businesses that hire new workers or raise wages;

- tax incentives that encourage all businesses to invest in plants and equipment;

- expedited work on infrastructure projects, and clean energy projects;

- elimination of capital gains taxes on small business investment; and

-- reduction of tax breaks to companies that ship jobs abroad and diversion of those breaks to businesses that create jobs in the U.S.

He urged the Houses of Congress to pass a Jobs Bill containing these and related provision. Such a Bill has already been adopted by the House of Representatives, and a Senate version is now required.


The second group of measures Obama submitted dealt with long term economic transformation which was the only way, he argued, to restore lost jobs and create a firm foundation for future prosperity.

Obama has a complex process in mind. It includes financial reform, research and innovation in a variety of fields including clean energy and climate change, a sustained effort to increase both productivity and export trade, investment in education, affordability of education, and health care reform.

Much of this will require action by Congress, and he urged that that necessary legislation should be accelerated.

He particularly urged Congress not to give up on health care reform. The debate so far had been unduly extended -- he was partly to blame, he said -- and the longer it takes to reach finality, the more complex the situation becomes, with lobbyists and special interests wading in to muddy the waters.

He would not desert Americans who badly need health care reform, Obama pledged. He added: “Here’s what I ask Congress, though. Don’t walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people. Let’s get it done. Let’s get it done.”


Obama has been criticized for jeopardizing his agenda by taking on too many issues in his first year. He took the criticism head on, saying: “From the day I took office, I’ve been told that addressing our larger challenge is too ambitious, such an effort would be too contentious. I’ve been told that our political system is too gridlocked, and that we should just put things on hold for a while.

“For those who make these claims, I have one simple question: How long should we wait? How long should America put its future on hold?”

In these compelling words, emotional perhaps but also on target, there were surely historical echoes of Martin Luther King Jnr’s question and answer in Montgomery, Alabama over four decades ago: “How long? Not long.”

The circumstances were quite different, but King on another occasion responded with clarity to all those who counsel perpetual patience -- “because the time is not right” -- when transformational policies are advocated.

In his world famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written to a group of eight white clergymen who had counseled patience by King and others, he wrote:

“For years now I have heard the word ‘wait.’…….This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’” (IDN-InDepthNews/29.01.2010)

Copyright © 2009 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

The writer has served as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon ‘Daily News’ and the Ceylon ‘Observer’, and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore ‘Straits Times’. He is on the IDN editorial board.

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